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Carlos Guitarlos Baits the Hook, by Edward Kane, Jazz Review, October 14, 2005

Venue: Pike Bar and Grill (Long Beach, CA)

10/14/05 – The Pike Bar & Fish Grill is a friendly neighborhood bar and restaurant located in my little corner of Long Beach. A nice, comfortable place to have a beer and eat seafood, with a great sign featuring a giant octopus and the establishment’s name out front. I’ve always liked The Pike–it just doesn’t happen to be a place where I expect to hear world-famous musicians live in person. Yet, that was exactly what happened last Saturday, when local legend Carlos Guitarlos and ex-Eric Clapton/Shakespeare’s Sister singer Marcy Levy dropped by to play three engaging sets of blues.

Carlos Guitarlos is a familiar figure in the Los Angeles area from his years as guitarist for Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs. The heavy drinking, Hell-raising Pigs were a favorite live blues act during the 1980s in LA, developing a following from Hollywood to the more blue-collar environs of Long Beach and the South Bay area. But that lifestyle will catch up to you. Top Jimmy died in 2001, while Carlos ended up for a while playing on the street in San Francisco and surviving a couple of close brushes with the Grim Reaper himself. Carlos finally cleaned up and a few years back, re-establishing himself as the great blues interpreter that he is on 2003’s Straight From The Heart with help from friends such as Dave Alvin, Mike Watt and John Doe. Better yet, the disc helped bring his playing to a world-wide audience. One such listener was Marcy Levy, who joined him on his new album Hell Can Wait.

The show was supposed to start at 9:00, but I always take those things with a grain of salt when it comes to pub gigs. When I got there around 9:20, the band was there alright–finishing up their dinner at a table in front of the tiny stage. Perfect, enough time to order a round of drinks and a plate of fish and chips just before they started. The band was outstanding, with fellow Rhythm Pig alum Joey Morales on drums, Bill MacBeath on bass, and Marcy Levy singing and showing some chops on harmonica and guitar as well. Their material included tunes from the last two albums, some of Marcy’s songs, and blues standards.

One of the real highlights of the night was the version of Levy & Clapton’s hit “Lay Down Sally.” She of course sounded great singing it, and Carlos really rose to the occasion with a solo that was so good it bordered on the profound. He seemed to enjoy the Clapton connection, even throwing in some tunes associated with the guitarist that pre-dated Levy’s tenure with him, including a somewhat Ventures-esque reading of the instrumental theme to “Layla.” And why not? He has the chops to withstand the inevitable comparisons. He also did a really nice version of Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind” with a brief solo feature on guitar for Levy and a brief segue into “When You’ve Got A Good Friend.” Taking the lead vocal, Carlos Guitarlos sounded a little like Johnson’s stepson, Robert Lockwood, Jr. He also threw in some tasty slide guitar work and creating nifty train whistle effects by quickly adjusting the volume knob on his instrument.

Carlos Guitarlos is sober and playing better than ever. He can still be an irascible presence on stage, telling corny jokes and occasionally baiting the crowd in between songs, even stopping once mid-song to correct his bandmates. But thank goodness for that; Carlos shows that going straight doesn’t have to mean going soft, too. If he’s living a little easier these days, Carlos Guitarlos still plays the blues hard.