South Valley Gris-Gris
Felix y los Gatos conjures spellbinding sounds
Judging from Ocho, the new album from Felix y los Gatos, Felix Peralta (guitar, vocals) has been knee-deep in some hard times lately: relationship problems, too much partying, trying not to party, homesickness (living in the Heights and aching for the South Valley), car trouble and so on.
“It’s straight from our real life,” he says. “It’s not imagination. The first song, ‘Gato Malo,’ is just—we’re just bad cats, you know? Bad as in bad motherfuckers, and bad as in just always getting in trouble.” Peralta reels off a giddy laugh.
Trouble for Peralta and the Gatos—Dave Barclay (accordion, Wurlitzer electric piano), Tim McDaniel (bass) and Melvin Crisp (drums)—makes for some bad music. Bad as in gritty, low-down, bottom-of-the-bottle blues and rock and roll.
Felix and his Gatos (with Jeff Sipes and Noah Martinez splitting bass duties) will bring their bad selves to two album release parties Saturday: an afternoon acoustic set at Bookworks and an ear-reaming, speaker-burning gig at Low Spirits in the evening, with special guest Darin Goldston of the Memphis P. Tails.
Ocho may be a little rough around the edges, but it gives off an almost spooky energy. Part of that comes from the recording process. Produced by Bill Palmer at Frogville Studios in Santa Fe, the album was recorded live, mostly in single takes. The band played together in the same room, à la the Chess sessions that produced such hair-raising records in the ’50s. The sound is unapologetically old school, straight down to the mid-’50s Gretsch and the late-’60s Fender amps Peralta used in the studio.
Part of it is the band’s own take-no-prisoners commitment to wringing every last drop of soul from every song.
“We’re a bar band,” says Peralta, and that’s part of it, too. Playing night after night for rowdy folks out for a good time in questionable surroundings puts an edge on your performance that you don’t get elsewise.
The locomotive rhythm is another piece of it. Peralta and Barclay know how to shape nifty rhythms together and behind each other’s solos. Crisp’s ear-popping snare, slinky high-hat and kick-drum bombs push it all relentlessly forward over McDaniel’s booming river of bass.
There’s one last part: Peralta and his Gatos have the heart to make good-time music out of trouble and heartbreak.
Felix y los Gatos may be a bar band, but there’s a lot more going on than three chords. As the title of the previous album says, it’s a Green Chile Gumbo. The musicians cook themselves up a nice dark roux of blues and rock and roll. Then, they add essence of corrido, ranchera, tejano or polka, conjuring the ghosts of the South Valley, and heap in big handfuls of zydeco, especially when Barclay’s on accordion. In goes a dash of the Doors, and a pinch of John Fogerty and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
There’s one other element that sneaks into the pot, and while it might not be obvious, it intensifies all the other flavors: “We’re blues players that want to be jazz players,” says Peralta, who has the head of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” tattooed on his left forearm.
While Peralta’s playing draws on many influences, what’s uniquely his is that indefinable South Valley gris-gris that he squeezes out of his lime-green guitar. It’s the corridos, it’s the water in the acequia, the tightness of familia, the scent of green chile, the edgy pride, the hoary old cottonwoods. It’s all inescapably up in his music, and it makes a sound like no one else’s.