There was no drama, no sign of the sort of lovelessness or hardships known to inspire the blues this past July 27 at Alex’s Bar. There were only big grins, hugs and scuzzy lap-steel guitar with backbeat, thumping bass and power harp, a gospel-blues homage channeled through Bourbon Jones at a punk rock bar as if it were the motherfucking West Coast Delta. The Long Beach band hit the stage for what has come to be their yearly reunion gig.
But this year, the Jones are getting back together twice thanks to the nudge of this very story you’re reading. They’ll return to Alex’s Bar on Nov. 10 for a 3 p.m. show—with taco trucks.
Before their first reunion show in 2008, it’d been about nine years since the band’s original members had made music together. The pulpit-pounding, country-style bewailing may have transported audiences to the pews, but the young men behind the music were no choir boys. Chris Hanlin (vocals, lead guitar), Mario “Barmosca” Fontes (vocals, standup bass), Antoine Arvizu (drums) and Mikey Meyer (harmonica), all now 50-ish, existed in controlled chaos. “We were a hard-working, hard-drinking band who had emotion on their side,” Hanlin says, looking back with a mix of cautious fondness and restless regret.
Life has changed for the members of Bourbon Jones since the band’s heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s, a span that saw them holding services at the Blue Cafe downtown every Sunday for roughly five years. It was their own sort of saints-and-sinners-style sermon of redemption, served up through vintage amps and elegiac wailing while parishioners sipped Bloody Marys and brews on the promenade patio.
During those years, the Blue, as it was called by regulars, became a well-trod haunt for loyal local music fans, with the usual dead days attracting the city’s younger, artsy-musician crowd, as anyone who kept tabs on Rebecca Schoenkopf’s Commie Girl column in this here rag knows. Sunday days and Monday nights, the latter thanks to promoter Steve Zepeda, started to attract those who didn’t necessarily know Mississippi Fred McDowell from Fred Flintstone—and that was intentional. The blues are never an easy sell. [Checks notes.] It’s because of racism.
Blues audiences changed over the years. With very little airplay or commercial promotion, the genre morphed into a niche for middle-aged white dudes, as astutely explained in Ecology of Fear author Mike Davis’ 2014 essay for KCET upon the closing of legendary blues club Babe’s and Ricky’s Inn in South-Central Los Angeles. In hindsight, the argument could be made that Bourbon Jones came along at exactly the right time for the Blue Cafe. The band’s crossover and reach to a younger audience helped sustain the club, even if they weren’t appreciated as such to start. They still had dues to pay.
THE JONES’ GENESIS
Back up to 1992, and there’s 24-year-old Hanlin three years into becoming a Long Beach local after leaving behind rural Indiana. Thanks to a good start from his mother’s music collection, Hanlin graduated from Scott Joplin ragtime to Sun and Chess records blues artists before finding his own jam in high school, the same songs reinterpreted by white musicians in bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and Led Zeppelin. Hearing Jimmy Page play “In My Time of Dying” made Hanlin want to learn slide guitar, and he was still doing just that.
He’d recently parted ways with the punk-funk hybrid band Burning Daisy and was apprenticing with former World of Strings owner/renowned luthier Bob Mattingly, which led to him getting hired on at the shop by new owner Jon Peterson. It was there that he met and began working on his lap-steel skills with local blues legend Bernie Pearl, co-founder of the Long Beach Blues Festival. Pearl, who took lessons as a young man with Piedmont legend Brownie McGhee, saw the same sort of dedication to blues in Hanlin, a budding traditionalist. “He had explored the music and was passionate, so I took him seriously,” Pearl recalls.
Hanlin kept looking for his new project, keeping his eyes open for fellow players. As he rode his bike past Loma Liquor one day, he saw Barmosca playing standup bass through the window and got an intuitive sense that maybe he’d found the missing link.
Barmosca, a complete stranger to Hanlin at the time, showed him his new double bass, the exact same standup Harmony setup he listened to bassist Larry Taylor play on Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones album so many times he’d worn out multiple copies. Until then, the Taylor rig had been limited to a performance-art-style project that involved Barmosca screaming in a dress with junkyard parts and a saw. In private, he was determined to duplicate Taylor’s rich tone, tricking out his instrument with the same Karlson cabinet and Gallien-Krueger bass head Taylor used.
Despite the disparities in their musical styles, Hanlin was intrigued by where their styles could intersect and returned later to ask Barmosca if he wanted to play a coffee-shop gig with Hanlin’s new band. Barmosca agreed, and Hanlin handed him a cassette tape with about 40 blues covers to learn. “I think he took it as a challenge,” Hanlin says.
The band was really just Hanlin and a young punk-rock bouncer he’d bonded with through their mutual enthusiasm for old blues records. Meyer was barely 18 but eager, and he wanted to learn harmonica to emulate the artists he’d grown up listening to with his dad on public radio, the kinds of guys he saw as a kid portrayed on The Blues Brothers. The two logged late nights while Hanlin taught Meyer uptempo 1950s Little Walter chords at his apartment above Toe Jam (where Roscoe’s now sits), a local all-ages nightclub where it was not uncommon for Hanlin’s wakeup call to be a licking from Lou Dog of Sublime fame or maybe a police raid.
So a guy with a saw and a skirt fit right in with Hanlin’s harmonica player, whose last band, Wash, had been compared to a happier vegetarian version of gore-metal band GWAR by a local paper. One of Meyer’s costumes involved large, papier-mâché pineapple heads, while another used bubble wrap and a pool cover fashioned into some sort of bat getup. He once accidentally electrocuted himself onstage thanks to a bad combination of sweat, chicken wire and half-assed wiring. He was at that point most famous for being the guy who’d carved Slayer into his forearm with a scalpel on the album art and video for that band’s Divine Intervention. And his name is eerily close to that of the mask-wearing guy from Halloween.
“I had never played with anyone who had an upright bass before,” Hanlin recalls, explaining his odd choice in blues band mates. “It fit the vibe of the rootsier stuff I wanted to do.”
He just wanted to wail, and their little idiosyncrasies passed unnoticed. Combined, they were just brash enough to totally not care that they were not old black guys or even like the blues-rock players with paler skin and long hair dominating the commercial rock stations at the time.
Hanlin asked Arvizu—whom he knew from his years playing drums in post-punk Dr. Dream band National People’s Gang and as an engineer at Mambo Sound & Recording next to Blue Cafe—to stop by a gig at a coffeehouse to see about recording the new project, then called the Revelators. It was all acoustic blues with no drums, covering 1920s country-blues artists and emulating the finger-picking styles and steel-guitar licks of the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bukka White, Charley Patton and Reverend Gary Davis.
Arvizu, also fairly new to 12-bar blues, had cold-shouldered the music in his younger years, despite his older, cooler, musician brother-in-law, Stephen Hodges, trying his best to spoon-feed him it as a teen. But then, when Hanlin made the request, Arvizu was in his earlyish 20s and bandless; he was taking lessons again and exploring new sounds, including that coming out of a bottleneck cigar-box guitar. “It spoke to me,” Arvizu says, explaining how the combination of African syncopation and Native American-influenced beats finally started making more sense to him.
The sessions organically morphed into something. “We were like, ‘Maybe we’re a band?’” Arvizu recalls. It remained a maybe for a bit as they figured things out, and then they realized there was already a milquetoast Christian music band called the Revelators. Barmosca’s then-girlfriend came up with a better name on a whim: Bourbon Jones. That name stuck.
YOUNG & RECKLESS
One of Bourbon Jones’ early gigs was at the aforementioned juke joint Babe’s and Ricky’s. After they finished their set, an audience heckler said, “Don’t bring that shit in here again,” Meyer recalls, still amused, before she chastised them for having the audacity to sit onstage. They were not swayed. They stubbornly dove deeper to defy expectations and master the form.
“Someone else may have been self-conscious, but we didn’t care,” Barmosca says. “We never cared.”
That ambivalence mixed with determination pushed the outliers to extremes, living hard and drinking even harder to catch the ghosts to draw from. They toured from the West Coast to the Deep South crammed in a dank van, even booking gigs in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and living to tell the tale. They’d all moved into Arvizu’s musician flophouse, Hotel St. Louis, behind the old Signal Hill cowboy bar the Foothill after Hanlin got Barmosca evicted by throwing booze bottles in the street. Their purposeful poverty pastiche as struggling musicians created an intense cocktail of emotions mixed with barfly messiness that spilled onto the stage—and left them teetering on destruction.
The band scored a few opening slots for Zepeda’s Monday nights by ’94, billed as alternative-rock nights with touring acts supported by local bands—not generally blues acts, though. That still didn’t garner the attention of the owners, who were reluctant to book local acts for hot nights expected to draw blues purists to see musicians such as Top Jimmy, Eric Sardinas, Lester Butler, Rod Piazza and Junior Brown. But that was not the blues Bourbon Jones played. Oddly, their traditional style was shunned for the Chicago style popular at the time. The band recorded a batch of blues covers and released it as their first album, Original Recipe, completely unironically, Hanlin admits. They took themselves pretty seriously.
In 1996, Pearl invited Hanlin to bring Bourbon Jones onto his cable-access show, Blues Break With Bernie Pearl. That got the notice of Vince Jordan, one of the owners of the Blue, who was also a guest on that episode. The Sunday-midday slot opened, and Jordan was impressed enough with the greenish blues band’s appearance on Pearl’s show to give them a shot at the shittiest slot they had, despite a sloppy performance that included a booze bottle falling out of Barmosca’s pocket mid-song and Meyer dropping his harmonica. They’d get paid a pitiful $200 total.
That Sunday gig—grinding out blues songs for five hours, wailing away in the midday sun and working the crowd—helped them perfect their chops. Arvizu, who now owns the Compound recording studio in Signal Hill, advises musicians he works with to do the same. “I tell young bands all the time, ‘Get a residency.’ That helped us,” Arvizu says. “It gave us a purpose.”
Improvisational, booze- and espresso-fueled, pill-propped Sunday shows served as rehearsals for Bourbon Jones’ growing gig list on other days, which included double-booking some Sunday nights. They also provided the opportunity to play with the Saturday-night headliners, journeymen such as Lazy Lester, who sat in with the band when he picked up gear the next day. “We listened and learned,” Meyer says reverently. “That was the best we ever sounded.”
“Sundays at the Blue Cafe were church for many, and I spent countless afternoons absorbing their wild-card sets,” says Brett Bixby, host of the show Bix Mix on KLBP and former band mate of Hanlin’s in his other band, the Dibs. “At the Blue, I noticed that their music attracted young kids, old music vets, people of all ages and stripes, homeless people who wanted to dance on the promenade. There is something timeless about what they do as they pull from a deeper reservoir of Delta blues and spirituals. They may be young for that style, but their heart was always convicted, and listeners can feel the purity of joy in paying musical respects with heart.” No one could accuse them of mailing it in.
Soon, the band members started writing their own songs in the style of the greats they were paying lip service to. They’d filled out their sound with keys, bringing aboard Hammond B3 player Austin Bach, whom they nicknamed Coconut Willie for no reason other than silliness. They collectively raised $1,800 to record a new song, half the going rate. Arvizu secured a deal through his job as an engineer at Capitol Studios, and Hodges, who would go on to contribute drums on Waits’ Grammy Award-winning Mule Variations not long after, was on board to produce.
They had enough cash for one day of recording. They had one shot. They needed perfection. “But that’s just not how this band works,” Hanlin says, acknowledging what unfolded. “It was lunacy.”
Arvizu’s version is a little more vivid: The band was a hot mess. Hanlin played four shows at four different venues the night prior—the last being with the Fauntleroys at the Foothill, fueled by alcohol and illegal substances. The Fauntleroys were fronted by Meyer and donned foppish Little Lord Fauntleroy costumes as they churned out metal-guitar riffs and punk-rock angst. It was even messier.
Running into a bloodied and shitty-drunk Hanlin at about 1:30 a.m., Arvizu was not amused, as his job was what got them in the door at Capitol. The next morning, Hanlin showed up, hung over and hangry, throwing his gear into the van. His white button-down shirt was half-open, and his hair was greasy. He powered through some coffee and was all business, Arvizu remembers with a hint of awe. “He sang and played guitar like a motherfucker. He just showed up and did that shit. I don’t know how he did it.”
Prior to the recording, Hodges had taken to sitting in with the band when Arvizu had other commitments. Meyer got to spend valuable time with Hodges, gleaning less-is-more input from the accomplished percussionist whose credits already listed not only Waits, but also stints with Mike Watt of the Minutemen and Dave Alvin of the Blasters. That sort of preproduction work helped build an intimacy with the band that translated well to 2-inch, 24-track analog reel. “He got that flavor down on record,” Arvizu says with respect.
In the end, it turned out just as they’d hoped, recording nearly all of their second album, Glory Train, save a couple of overdubs. It’s like a baby brother to the album Hanlin still considers the holy grail: blues-harp badass Lester Butler’s band the Red Devils’ barnburner King King, produced by Rick Rubin, which was the result of their famed Monday-night residency at the club.
TOO MUCH DRAMA
In the end, the darkness slowly dismantled the band. Musical peers began to perish because of bad choices, causing self-reflection and sorrow. There was harmonica player William Clarke. Then Lester Butler died of an overdose weeks after talking optimistically with Hanlin outside the Blue about sobriety and offering kudos on Glory Train. Bourbon Jones’ band members started to grow apart musically. Arvizu, then Hanlin called it quits. Barmosca and Meyer kept Sundays going for a couple of years before moving on to new projects. They’ve all survived and live healthy, happy lives these days, which helps them to revisit the music and moods that go along with Bourbon Jones without unraveling.
“We got so deep with one another,” Meyer explains. “You get that far into the bones of the music, it gets inside you, too.”
Besides, he notes, the contrast between extremes is life. Bourbon Jones have mastered finding balance. “Life is not all sugar plums and lollipops,” Meyer says, “but it’s also not all corpses.”
Barmosca takes it all in stride. “You need to rub sticks together to get fire. If ‘Kumbaya’ held people’s attention, we’d all sing that.”