By: Rich Kane
You could hold a pretty great music fest with only bands and solo projects that have connections to the Cadillac Tramps: WaxApples. Flock of Goo Goo. Manic Hispanic. X Members. The Black Diamond Riders. Jonny "Two Bags" Wickersham. Not to mention all the unnamed one-offs and shoulda-beens that never made it past a rehearsal space.
Now tack on another to that fantasy bill: Santos y Sinners, five guys who pump out dirty, primal blues that sounds as if it's been knifed in the face and dragged through several miles of Mississippi red-clay back road. But, you know, in a good way.
The new group make perfect sense, a deeper sonic extension birthed from the Tramps' animated belter Mike "Gabby" Gaborno and guitar slinger Brian Coakley that dive fully into the blues roots their more iconic–yeah, 25-plus years on, we can say "iconic"–band always scrambled their punk rock souls with.
You kind of wonder why it took so long, but Gabby and Coakley were just waiting for their secret weapon: Eric VonHerzen (EV to his friends), a harmonica blower who has been around the county roots scene for a good couple of decades, performing with bands such as the Atomic Road Kings and playing on a long list of sessions–that's his harp you hear on "Drug Train," off Social Distortion's self-titled 1990 breakthrough album. (Santos y Sinners also includes drummer Jim Monroe and bassist Chris Smith.)
"I've played with some really cool blues acts, but most of them don't have a charismatic front man," says VonHerzen. "With Gabby out front, it was a no-brainer. He can hold the crowd like Screamin' Jay Hawkins."
"And I've been known all these years as the guy with his dick in his hand and his pants down and rubbing his nipples," Gaborno says, "but there's also stacks of stories and poetry that have been burning a hole in my soul, and Santos gives me a chance to get those stories out there."
Just a few shows into the life of Santos, and Coakley thinks the band have found their focus: raw blues with a slight Tom Waits tinge, avoiding the done-to-death standards in favor of darker traditional songs such as "Killing Floor," and set list twists like the Clash's "Guns of Brixton" and the Texas Tornados' "(Hey Baby) Que Paso."
"By the time everyone's throwing their 2 cents into these old blues songs, they definitely have a new bent to them," Coakley explains. "'Guns of Brixton' is actually a really bluesy song when you think about it. Throw in EV's harmonica, and it becomes really something."
There are plans for original songs, more shows, some eventual recording. But as much of a pedal-through-the-floorboard joyride Santos promises, Coakley is also busying himself with a documentary project on the Cadillac Tramps' story.
It's an important one. The Tramps helped to keep Orange County punk alive in the gap years between the Adolescents/Middle Class/Social Distortion era and the Great Offspring Explosion of 1994. Directed by Coakley's wife, Jamie, Life On the Edge is expected to finish shooting over the summer, with a plan for sponsorship deals and crowd-funding contributions to complete the editing, then submitting it to next year's festival circuit.
The Coakleys had talked about doing a film project on the Tramps before, but after the notoriously hard-living Gaborno suffered a stroke in 2009 and more recently came down with serious liver and kidney issues (he currently does dialysis three times per week), the need to preserve the band's legacy became much more urgent.
Shooting began in the spring of 2014, and so far, the project has been unexpectedly illuminating, evolving into something much bigger than planned. "It's turned into a really humbling experience," says Coakley. "We really had no idea how many people we touched as a band. It's pretty trippy when you have these big-time stars like Skinhead Rob from the Transplants get choked up in the interview we did, saying that our song 'Alright' helped get him through his uncle dying of AIDS. [There are] others saying that a certain song we wrote helped get them through a hard time in their life, or inspired them to go do something. And it's not just two or three people. After a while, we asked ourselves, 'What the fuck were we doing when this was going on?'"
The goal is to make Life On the Edge something more substantial than a familiar rise-fall-rise-again music doc. Coakley also aims to deliver a message about hepatitis C, a disease that has touched band members and their friends. "Some of our friends were all fucking and screwing around when we were younger, and now, as we're getting older, it starts to affect you in your late 40s and 50s," Coakley says. "Then in your 60s, you develop liver cancer that progressively eats away at your liver, and there are different stages of cirrhosis. So with the film, we want to try to not only tell the story of the band, but also raise some awareness, so maybe when the doc is ready, we can try to align ourselves with some groups and organizations, try to do something more purposeful. It would also be great if the film can help us get Gabby some new parts."
Gaborno admits that dialysis is rough going, but once he gets onstage, it feels as though that's all the medication he needs. There are also precious life moments that make him feel grateful for every day he's still vertical. "When I was younger, I always thought that being rich was having a yacht and a girl with a 6-foot tongue," he jokes. "But since my own mortality has come into question, when you hear that you may not live, all of a sudden, you start living. Now, rich, to me . . . I have a 5-year-old boy, and I'm a Little League coach. That's millionaire status to me. A bunch of little kids running up to me and calling me coach is beyond what I could ever dream."
Santos y Sinners perform at the Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen, 122 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-2233; www.slidebarfullerton.com. Thurs., May 28, 8 p.m. Free. 21+; also with the Blasters and others at the Huntington Hoedown festival at Fuzion, 7227 Edinger Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 377-7671; www.selloutprod.com/huntington-hoedown/. June 6, noon-1 a.m. $15. All ages.