[23 July 2008]
When an artist passes from the world far too soon, cultural enthusiasts, fans and even colleagues often dissect their final work for clues, for another glimpse into the soul of the departed. Sometimes overreaching, sometimes bittersweet and insightful, it’s natural to take the opportunity and try to apply some last splashes of color to the picture of a life the artist will never complete.
Chris Gaffney would have been 58 in October; the Hacienda Brothers’ frontman lost his life to liver cancer back in April. The band, present in Americana circles since 2002, was born out of the rich friendship of career musicians Gaffney (The Cold Hard Facts, Dave Alvin & The Guilty Men) and guitarist Dave Gonzalez (The Paladins). If an analysis of the band’s last album is to be believed, Gaffney lived a life full of color, spirit and heart. Not only is Arizona Motel an album full of beauty and a postscript worthy of the man who helped create it, it is one of the best country albums of the year.
The intense beauty of Arizona Motel exists on many levels. The majority of the album was crafted at Cavern Recording Studios in Tucson and the band does a remarkable job of portraying the landscape of its birth. A trip through the Grand Canyon State can, in a matter of hours, takes travelers from untamed, bone-dry desert to untamed, cool mountains. That refreshing wildness of spirit is represented in these 14 songs which sound as if they were written after many miles journeying up and down Arizona highways.
Hacienda Brothers not only sound as if they have a remarkable understanding of the Southwest’s crannies and corners, they also sound as if they stepped straight out of another time. Were Sam Phillips still around to sign artists to his Sun Records, he would have made a beeline to the Hacienda Brothers. The group enthusiastically combines the best of what made classic country, early R&B, and the first strains of rock and roll appealing to the listeners who ravenously ate it up.
And throughout, leading the way, are the vocals of Chris Gaffney. On the Hacienda Brothers’ website, Gaffney’s self-penned bio reveals a love for vocalists including Otis Redding, Dan Penn (who helped produce the record) and Ray Price. Gaffney also reveals that his father “was very much into music as long as it was Sinatra or Dean Martin.” Those influences however direct or indirect all add to the frontman’s beguiling sound. Gaffney sounds as if he spent many a formative night in honkytonks with sawdust flooring, yet his voice also drips with soul and contains the romance of a crooner.
All of those sounds, of course, are represented on Arizona Motel . Gonzalez and the rest of the band (Hank Maninger on bass, Dale Daniel on drums, and David Berzansky on steel guitar) are up to the challenge, skillfully altering mood and tone to match every bend and break in Gaffney’s weathered voice.
While the album is solid from start to finish, its best tunes alternate between feelings of gravity and spirited romps. The album’s first true gem, “Uncle Sam’s Jail”, is a heartbreaking tale of war that is, as the band’s website describes, “…more about the poor man’s blues than a political statement.” Gaffney’s accordion and Berzansky’s steel trade lonesome figures that reflect the soldier’s longing and lament. On the jauntier side are tracks like “Light It Again Charlie” and “Soul Mountain.” The former is a Blues Brothers-style instrumental which showcases the dirty soul in Gonzalez’s baritone guitar licks. The latter is a gospel rave-up dedicated to a woman who, Gaffney sings, is “gonna put me up on higher ground.”
Toward album’s end comes two of Arizona Motel ‘s most shining moments: “Long Way to Town” and “Break Free” (which, by default, serves as Gaffney’s swan song). Featuring a rare vocal from Gonzalez, “Long Way to Town” features one of the record’s best hooks and a joyful instrumental turn from Berzansky. Were the song pressed on vinyl in the early days of rockabilly, it would have been huge; today it’s a true-to-form reminder of the power in a pure, untroubled sound.
As the record’s 14th and final track, “Break Free,” serves by default as Gaffney’s swan song. Gaffney’s hopeful accordion greets listeners at the track’s outset; as a sweet soul groove is loosed, Gaffney continues to deliver hope to listeners, exhorting them to lay life’s chains aside. In light of the tragic disease which claimed Gaffney’s life, one has to wonder if there a little providence was at work when the band chose to close with this track.
For those who miss Chris Gaffney, friends and fans, perhaps there is some comfort knowing that the last musical memories made by this American troubadour helped bring freedom and heart to such an optimistic anthem. Arizona Motel is, in any context, a truly fine album. With Gaffney’s memory lingering over its release, an extra measure of spirit imbues the recording, a spirit the album ensures will not be forgotten.