Hell Can Wait Reviews

Carlos Guitarlos: Hell Can Wait (Nomad)
by Dan Forte, Vintage Guitar
March 2006

This former guitarist with L.A.’s Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs and fixture as a San Francisco street performer follows 2003’s impressive Straight From The Heart with an even stronger outing. The songs are better; the production more polished; and Carlos’ vocals (while ranging from ravaged to powerful) are an improvement.

His guitar playing can be aggressive, even ham-fisted, but suits the material and is invariably the perfect complement to his vocals, as well as those by guests Marcy Levy and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. Levy, who was part of Eric Clapton’s outfit, off and on, from the mid 1970s to the mid ’80s, smoothes Guitarlos’ rough edges without compromising his personality, providing backup on several numbers and dueting with Carlos on the country speedster “My Old Dead Body” and the Stax-flavored “I Found Someone,” which the two co-wrote.

Hidalgo provides accordion on the Cajun two-step “Keep Me Satisfied,” with Carlos on acoustic, and Blaster/T-Bird Gene Taylor lends organ to the jazzy ballad “Drinkin’ Again” and barrelhouse piano to several others, but the repertoire is mainly blues, with a rock-solid rhythm section. Hidalgo and Guitarlos split vocal and lead duties on the Otis Rush-tinged “Shake My Blue” – David’s melodicism contrasting nicely with Guitarlos’ sixstring sting (and one of his strongest vocals).

Beginning and ending the 19-song program are two solo acoustic numbers. “Love Me From The Start” shows that Carlos is right at home in ragtimey mode, while the stark “I’ve Been Dead” (which he co-wrote with Top Jimmy Koncek) is reminiscent of early Tom Waits, a running buddy of the late Koncek.

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Carlos Guitarlos: Hell Can Wait
by James Porter, Blues Revue
January 2006

Carlos Guitarlos played guitar in the '80s with Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs, Los Angeles punks who amped up their blues far more aggressively than the typical bar band but still managed to sound traditional. Bandleader Jimmy Koncek passed away some years back, but on Hell Can Wait, Carlos is twice as feisty as he was 20 years ago. His ballsy voice sounds like Freddy Fender in a bad mood.

Many songs here take cues from bluesy '50s vocal groups such as the Midnighters and the Five Royales. Listening to those stroll beats, you can almost hear where the horn section is supposed to come in, but slide guitar and harmonica take their place. And while some bands go out of their way to get a vintage sound (microphone placement, equipment, etc.), all Carlos' crew had to do was pick up their instruments as the tape rolled.

Several styles are essayed here, including pumping piano boogie ("Shake With My Baby"), Tex-Mex balladry ("Making Better"), and '60s soul strut ("Get Back"). Thankfully, Carlos doesn¹t believe in the 15-minute guitar solo, but there's still an amazing number of face-melting licks. At no time do they overwhelm the song; Carlos is known for his writing chops as well as his playing. Maybe singing should be added to that list, too: Based on his belting style, it sounds as though he's absorbed a lot of Joe Turner.

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Carlos Guitarlos: Hell Can Wait (Nomad)
by Peter Hund, Good New Music
January 2006

While some of the songs on his two solo albums undoubtedly are blues, the music of Guitarlos (aka Carlos Daniel Ayala) is unclassifiable – so much of it falls into the rock ’n’ roll, country, boogie-woogie, swing, R&B, Cajun, doo-wop, soul and Tex-Mex domains, as well as the grey areas in between. Like the one-sheet says: “File under roots/Americana/blues.”

His first solo album, 2003’s “Straight From the Heart,” was hailed as comeback of the year. To make a long story short: He went from member of Van Halen-immortalized 1980s L.A. punk-blues group Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs to down-and-out San Francisco street musician before pulling himself up by the seat of his pants and getting his act together.

Needless to say, this guy plays and sings with the conviction of someone who’s, well, been to hell and back. This is cut-the-crap, real-deal stuff -- no posing, no corporate-dictated schlock.

Helping Guitarlos out with his sophomore effort (again released on Nomad, a label started by his nephew) are kindred musical spirits David Hidalgo and Gene Taylor, with occasional background vocals from Marcy Levy (who also duets on “I Found Someone”). Returning for production duties is Marc Doten, of Double Naught Spy Car fame.

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Carlos Guitarlos: Hell Can Wait
by Art Fein, Art Fein's Poker Party
December 2005

The new Carlos Guitarlos album, Hell Can Wait, his second, is the greatest thing I’ve heard in a century. I could not believe such an album could be made today. It harkens to the best parts of the early 70s country/rock hybrid movement (The Movement With No Name), though it is fundamentally an r&b record. (Delaney & Bonnie with James Burton on guitar?) I listen to it over and over again. I cannot get enough of it. I have not listened to an album constantly in this fashion since 1978.

Marcy Levy (‘Marcella Detroit,’ who, when a background singer for Eric Clapton co-wrote “Lay Down Sally” and was co-singer and writer of “Stay,” a 1992 UK hit for Shakespeare’s Sister) is Carlos’s co-singer on several moving cuts.

I wish the record hadn’t opened with the good but ‘regular’ blues of “Love Me From The Start.” It makes you think it’s a blues album. “Got No Time,” second cut, is fine too, but I would have led off with cut 3, “Get Back,” an emotional powerhouse with brilliant Bobby Bland-style horns, sung by Carlos and Marcy. (And Carlos’s brother, Ray Ayala, a prominent L.A. singer in his own right.) On cut 4 Carlos trades off vocals and guitar with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos (they also share cut 10, “Keep Me Satisfied, with Hidalgo on accordian) to excellent results. Cut 5 is another sharer with Marcy Levy, and it is tremendous.

It EXPLODES with cut 6. “I Found Someone,” is deep and moving love ballad with r&b footing that is simply incomparable, aided again by the marvelous Marcy. Cut 8, “Drinking Again,” which Carlos wrote about his old bandmate the late Top Jimmy, is so brilliant I can’t speak; it connects directly to the 50s in ways I never thought possible today.

I first heard this CD on a portable player, but got distracted somewhere in the 19 tracks and didn’t realize what a MASTERPIECE it was until at the gym (I go, barely) (clothed, but reluctantly, I mean) I heard cut 16, “I Feel Love,” another original. The cry of his soul is so eloquent .... you CANNOT HELP BUT CRY at its beauty.

The razzle-dazzle of Gene Taylor’s (Blasters) boogie woogie piano - and Carlos’s lyrical - improvisation on cut 9, “Say You Love Me,” is a wonderful blast of Joe Turner/Pete Johnson done anew. Cut 18, “Hole In My Pocket” is Howlin’ Wolf reincarnated, great like his other blues blasts that are NOT EMBARASSING LIKE SO MANY CONTEMPORARY BLUES EFFORTS.

The finale, “I’ve Been Dead Since You’ve Been Gone,” is a beautiful cry of loss that took affected Carlos so emotionally that he put off recording it for a year.


Thank God for Carlos Guitarlos.

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Carlos Guitarlos: Hell Can Wait     (4 stars out of 5)
by Jim Abbott, Orlando Sentinel Pop Music Critic
September 9, 2005

A heaven-sent infection.

With that rhyming name, Carlos Guitarlos sounds like a novelty act, but there's serious swagger and old-school R&B on Hell Can Wait.

It's the second full-length release from this San Francisco street musician, whose old band, Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs, once inspired a Van Halen song.

Now Guitarlos has earned the admiration of Los Lobos member David Hidalgo, one of several notable contributors to this generous collection. There's a lot of 12-bar blues here, but Hell Can Wait also dips into swinging Latin styles and vintage rock formulas. No matter the stylistic turn, these 19 songs are always infused with rowdy energy and precise, yet emotionally charged, musicianship.

Perhaps as a nod to his street roots, the album's ensemble numbers are bookended by a pair of solo songs: "Love Me From the Start'' is a raw blues powered by percussive acoustic guitar that reflects the blunt lyrics: "Better get your dress off, if you're gonna mess with me.''

The closer, "I've Been Dead Since You've Been Gone'' is a more tender and melodic acoustic ballad, though the sweetness is laced with a lot of sadness.

Although Guitarlos is obviously familiar with the blues, there's more joy than woe on the band numbers. "Got No Time'' rumbles along on a raucous New Orleans rhythm, with frisky guitars and horns lifting the singalong chorus about a man too busy living to be tied down to one woman.

Musically, Guitarlos can't be tied down either. Hell Can Wait never seems to settle into a predicable style, shifting effortlessly from the "Got No Time'' 's rumba into the 1950s rock shuffle of "Get Back'' into the fiery Tex-Mex of "Shake My Blue.''

Hidalgo shares lead vocals on the latter, which crackles with the simmering soul of a classic Los Lobos tune. Actually, you can't even depend on Los Lobos to come up with a groove this good anymore.

Hidalgo isn't the only talented guest. Gene Taylor (of the Blasters and the Fabulous Thunderbirds) plays piano, and vocalist Marcy Levy (Shakespear's Sister and Eric Clapton) provides pretty harmonies on "Save a Dance'' and "I Found Someone.''

But it's not the band that makes this music so infectious. It's the guy with the funny name.

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Straight from the Heart Reviews

Heart, Heat & Hiatt
by Tony Peyser, Santa Monica Mirror
June 4, 2003

There should have already been an obit for Carlos Guitarlos. It would have mentioned his playing guitar with Top Jimmy and The Rhythm Pigs twenty years ago. It would have noted how years of substance abuse rendered him homeless and how Guitarlos was last seen on Bay Area street corners playing for chump change. Well, Fate in the form a nephew intervened and, to make that proverbial long story short, a sizzling new CD proves it.

Straight From The Heart is a great blues album and would still be that without Guitarlos’ hard luck saga as a compelling back story. “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” is an instant bar band classic and he gets help from Mike Watt of The Minuteman who played on the local 1980s circuit when Guitarlos did. “Two Tavern Town” is just astonishing, as good a duet as you’ll hear this year. It’s a jangling tale of two barflies trying to woo one girl. Despite the toll liquor took on him, the now-sober Guitarlos has a crafted a friendly saloon song with an affection that’s irresistible. Joining him is John Doe, the ex-X man whose singing here is sweeter than seven pecan pies. If you feel the need to have a roof raised, Guitarlos does just that with Dave Alvin from The Blasters on “Poppin & Bumpin’” which does plenty of rockin’ and rollin’. If Guitarlos’ life hadn’t been lived, Charles Bukoswki would have invented it. Straight From The Heart is a strike thrown from the gutter in front of a bowling alley...

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Carlos Guitarlos: Straight From the Heart (Nomad)
by Lee Hildebrand, San Francisco Bay Guardian
July 23, 2003

Neither as raw nor as bluesy as Mission Blues, San Francisco street musician Carlos Guitarlos's 2001 debut CD, the follow-up, Straight from the Heart, nevertheless cuts an emotionally direct swath across the landscape of American roots music. Cajun, country, blues, rockabilly, and Memphis soul flavor the 17 original tunes – all held together by the weather-worn gruffness of Guitarlos's voice, the whammy-bar sting of his instrumental attack, and the wisdom of lyrics in which optimism somehow outshines weariness. "I'm up every day doin' what I can / Baby, I'm comin' home to be with you again," he cries out on "Ain't That Lovin' You," a surging slice of soul that could have been cut at Stax circa 1967.

Guitarlos achieved notoriety in L.A. punk circles two decades ago with the raucous blues combo Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, only to move north and fall on very hard times. With help from old friends Dave Alvin, John Doe, and Mike Watt (guesting on one track apiece) and a fine bunch of Bay Area players, the busker makes a solid – and quite soulful – bid to get back on top of the music biz. Carlos Guitarlos plays Sat/26, Eli's Mile High Club, Oakl. (510) 655-6161.

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Carlos Guitarlos: Straight From the Heart
by Stephen Metzger, Chico News and Review
October 16, 2003

If you like it raw and heartfelt, pick up this new disk by the original guitarist and songwriter for the L.A. band Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs. With help from his buds Mike Watt (Minutemen, Firehose), John Doe (X) and Dave Alvin (The Blasters), Guitarlos has put together 17 songs that blend zydeco, honky-tonk and Robert Johnson-style blues in a seamless masterpiece that speaks of the whiskey, bad women, trains and ultimately the redemptive power of real music and true love. Moving back and forth between raunchy roadhouse rhythms and tender waltzes, Guitarlos takes accordion riffs, harp breaks and plaintive pedal-steel lines to new places while at the same paying tribute to the traditions. Dust my broom, indeed. The title song was written from Guitarlos’ hospital bed while he was recovering from near-fatal congestive heart failure after years of living on the streets of San Francisco. It don’t get more real.

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True To Its Name
by Dave Good, BluesWax
June 16, 2004

In the spirit of full disclosure, those who have no idea what Carlos Guitarlos represented to the Hollywood Blues Rock scene of the 1980s may well find Straight From the Heart a bit, well, unwashed and unfinished like studio rough tracks. The work, while vivid, has the unpredictable edge of a homeless man who has bounced in and out of addictions and hospitals over the past two decades. That's been Carlos' life pretty much until he got clean and quit drinking. But for those who remember Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs (in which Carlos Guitarlos played guitar), Straight From the Heart isn't just a potent comeback of sorts - it's reason to rejoice that the man is alive and still able to make good and competent music.

At one time, Top Jimmy (James Konceck) was called L.A.'s greatest Blues singer. Carlos was right behind him, weighing in at around 300 pounds and pumping out some of the most violent Blues licks ever to be heard at the Cathay de Grande, the Hollywood pit where the hard-drinking and drugging Pigs were known as the band to see. The down side: Konceck (immortalized in the Van Halen tribute Top Jimmy) eventually died of liver failure while Carlos Guitarlos spent the last several years drifting in and out of flops in San Francisco, his health shot. For coin, he busked on the street with a borrowed axe and a battery powered amp.

The up side: the hard years have given Carlos an authenticity he never had as a young Blues-Punk lightning rod; the pieces fall into place for him on Straight From the Heart. With backing help from a cast that includes Mike Watt, Dave Alvin, and John Doe there are seventeen songs written by Guitarlos, most of them averaging between two and three minutes in length. It all kicks off with "Damn' Atchafalaya," a hardcore romp in the Alt. Country tradition with just a pinch of Louisiana seasoning. Based on handfuls of fat guitar tones and infectious lowland harmonies, there is an immediate sense of being in the hands of a master storyteller. Carlos' voice strains, but the band is enthusiastic and sets the pace for the rest of the record. "The Love I Want" sneaks in with the sweet, dark truths of a man looking up from the bottom at things he knows he wants but can no longer comprehend, while "Ain't That Lovin' You" is that song's retort. Basted in testosterone, the vocals seem to ask Do I measure up? The guitar's spare high-tension licks say Yes, I damn well do. It's a Fab T-bird rave up with Pete Mazich on Hammond B3 and a full horn attack. Then, on the soul-filled autobiographical "Straight From the Heart," the CD's title cut, it's not hard at all to believe Carlos when he sings "It's one, spit in the wind/ Two strikes I can't win/You've been callin' me, callin' me, callin' me/ To come back again."

"Easyrider" is a fun country Blues shuffle, nothing more and nothing less, while the slightly out-of-tune "Sea of My Troubles" fails to grab attention. "Poppin' and Bumpin'" features Dave Alvin, and sounds it. Two distinct guitar tones, Alvin's reverby twang and Carlos' dark rumble chase each other around the track like a shot of peppermint schnapps after a night of drinking cheap beer. "Keep My Hot Tamales Warm" contains dozens of footnotes to the Blues masters, while "Two Tavern Town" sets up John Doe and Carlos in a saint-meets-devil dichotomy. "Dance With Your Baby" is pure Texas Blues magic: "What's it gonna take to make you move/You just gonna stand around here takin' up room?" The horns punch and Carlos scrubs a solo out of the fretboard, his pick heavy on the strings. "Everybody's Got the Blues" is a jubilant romp in a funhouse full of mirrors, but "The Drought Song" is the best Blues tune on the CD. It lives up to a San Francisco Bay Guardian story in which they once called Carlos "a hell of a Blues player."

"The Drought Song" is bookended by "Women and Whiskey." Here, the playing is superior and the voice carries the sand of many nights spent hunched over a bar top. "You Don't Know What Love Is" would have been a fine place to end the album; it is the kicker, the command performance in which Carlos' guitar shoots bullets and Tom Fabre's sax bats cleanup. With grit and texture on loan from T-Bone Walker, this song is Carlos' masterwork. But there's more - "When the Pain Stops Killing Me" trifles by comparison and hits a little below the self-indulgence belt. Still and all, it holds a listener's attention. It is about the bottom, the very rock bottom they say you have to hit before you can get better. It is a place Carlos Guitarlos knows only too well.

But the bottom, such as it is, appears to be in the past now. The last time I saw Carlos, he was in relatively high spirits (read: something bordering on the aggressive). He had recently moved south to Los Angeles, and he told me that a film about the story of his life was going into production.

"Who's gonna play you?" I asked.
"I dunno - that guy, what's his name? Band...Ban..."
"You mean Banderas? Antonio Banderas? That guy?"
"Yeah. I think so. Who is he?," Carlos wanted to know. "Is he pretty good lookin?"

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Straight from the Heart (NOMAD)
by Tony Russell, MOJO Magazine
August 2004

Former LA punk musician and addict recovers to make exemplary Southern blues-rock album.

Crazy name, crazy guy? Actually, no. Guitarlos (real name Ayala) may look like a man who's spent some time in a parallel universe but he plays down-to-earth and straight, dealing cards you might recognize from the hands of Dave Alvin (who guests on one track), Sonny Landreth or even Tom Waits. His voice is half-wrecked and gritty, not surprisingly after what he's been through, but his guitar-playing epitomises half a dozen idioms, from blues to rockabilly and Cajun, and his unquenched spirit floats free all the way though this set of originals. The accompaniments are unpretentious, the production plain as a brick; what gives the album its singular charm is Guitarlos's obvious pleasure at finding, against the odds, a platform to present his life-enhancing music.

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Live Reviews

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.

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Carlos Guitarlos at Borderline

by David Sinclair, The Times (London)
October 2, 2004

THERE is talk of making a Hollywood movie about the life of Carlos Guitarlos, and you can see why. As the guitarist with the LA blues-punk group Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs in the 1980s, he lived a life of unbridled excess. By the time Top Jimmy died of liver failure, Guitarlos was drunk, divorced and diabetic, and forced to earn a living busking on the streets of San Francisco.

At the age of 54 and sober at last, his already prodigious performing and songwriting talents are now informed by a wealth of hard life experiences and his career has belatedly bloomed. His current album, Straight from the Heart, is a roots-rock gem, but even so it hardly prepares you for the musical and emotional masterclass that is a Carlos Guitarlos gig.

He seemed a little grumpy at first, berating the lighting engineer while rifling through a plastic bag filled with guitar accoutrements. And he was halfway through the zydeco-influenced shuffle of the opening number, Damn Atchafalaya, before the sound engineer located the fader to switch up his black Stratocaster.

Once he had done so, however, and Guitarlos had moved into the testifying R'n'B of The Love I Want followed by a blasting version of the Motown-influenced Ain't That Lovin' You, the extent of the man's talent was beginning to be revealed. Blessed with a gruff but heartfelt singing voice and possessing a huge vocabulary of guitar chops, he performed like a rogue angel. With his long grey hair spilling out from under a fedora and an easy smile that suggested a lifelong mistrust of dentists, he looked and sounded every inch the battle-scarred survivor.

As if this was not enough, his three-piece backing band included the singer and guitarist Marcy Levy. Known for her work with Eric Clapton, for whom she wrote Lay Down Sally, Levy is also remembered as one half of Shakespears Sister, whose biggest hit Stay she also wrote. Tall, dark and exuding a Chrissie Hynde-like cool, she sang these and other songs in a beautiful, clear soprano, that was the perfect foil for Guitarlos's street-hardened holler. She also took a two-verse harmonica solo during the 12-bar shuffle Women & Whiskey that was the sexiest thing I have ever seen on a rock'n'roll stage. The easy rapport between Guitarlos and Levy -- "Beauty and the beast," as Guitarlos described it -- added yet another dimension to a performance that was already superlative. They rounded off with a sure-footed revival of Robert Johnson's Rambling on My Mind and a blistering instrumental wig-out apparently called Pigfoot Shuffle. As far as basement-club blues goes, this was simply as good as it gets.

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Guitar man Carlos Guitarlos gets down at Duffy's
by Miles Jordan, Chico News and Review
August 19, 2004

Carlos Guitarlos (né Ayala) isn't yet a household name, but after Sunday's blazing sold-out performance at Duffy's you can bet that there are a lot of people here in Chico talking about him.

A member of L.A.'s Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs for eight years back in the '80s, Carlos moved to San Francisco after that band imploded. In 1991 he gave up playing clubs and began playing on the streets with a sign reading "WILL PLAY FOR FAME OR FORTUNE" propped against his tip jar.

You can see that, at 54, Carlos has led a hard life, but he's quick to point out that, although he plays on the streets, he doesn't live on the streets, a crucial distinction. After rallying from years of substance abuse, he and some friends, including Dave Alvin, recorded last year's Straight from the Heart (Nomad Records), and it was from this 17-song CD that Carlos and his band (bassist Bill MacBeath, who's been with Carlos since 1988 and is on eight of the disc's tracks, and Danish drummer Asmus Jensen) chose some of the night's music.

The band pulled into Chico from a trip up the coast and three gigs in Oregon, most notably at a food festival in Portland ("45 minutes in the sun," MacBeath told me) and less notably in Eugene at a place called Sam Brown's Garage, where an audience of 15 was on hand. Considerably more were present at Duffy's when, after a 30-minute delay, Carlos and crew took the stage and jumped right into "Damn' Atchafalaya," a super-heated Cajun number that he introduced as "a true story in someone else's miserable life, not mine," that describes the damming of the Atchafalaya River.

A funny, friendly, talkative guy, Carlos had something to say about each song he played, most of them his. I found it odd, however, that they rarely lasted longer than three minutes. The band alternated between killer rave-ups, as in the second set that opened with a volatile five-minute version (!) of the Elmore James classic, "Dust My Broom," with Carlos playing slide, followed by "The Love I Want" ("is the love you've got"), a relaxed love song that--like others in his repertoire--showed another side of him.

In fact, there are a lot of different sides to Carlos, as he continued to reveal when taking fascinating detours on guitar during his nearly three-hour, three-set performance. Using his whammy bar, Carlos judiciously laid some tremelo on some songs and did some nifty finger picking, too, especially on his Robert Johnson "tribute," "Rambling on My Mind." Where he truly excelled was in recasting familiar blues songs--i.e., "Wang Dang Doodle," "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (superb Big Joe Turner-style shouting)--in new ways. He has a clear singing voice, which was in significant contrast to the growl he affected during some introductions.

Chico was the last stop on this trip, and you could see the band really enjoyed the enthusiastic audience's response. I can't imagine a more perfect setting for the band than Duffy's; its juke joint atmosphere was just right.

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Carlos Guitarlos, Borderline, London
by Alasdair Lees, The Independent (UK)
October 6, 2004

It's an edifying coincidence that Carlos "Guitarlos" Ayala should play his first gig in the UK in the same week that heavy-metallers-in-meltdown rockumentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster was released. Ayala could have used a $40,000-a-month "therapist/performace-enhancement coach" when his life fell into an abyss of alcoholism, divorce, drugs, homelessness and near-death in the 1990s.

Before this personal apocalypse, Ayala was a key figure in LA's 1980s blues-punk underground, which included acts such as Los Lobos, The Blasters, Fear, X and his own band, the notoriously hard-living Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs. After the Rhythm Pigs imploded in 1987, Ayala became a busker on the pavements of San Francisco, strumming for commuters' change on the transit plaza in the city's sleazy Mission district.

Tonight, Ayala confesses that the moving title track of his latest album, Straight from the Heart - one of the most acclaimed US blues releases of recent years - was written "on his deathbed", as he recovered from near-fatal congestive heart failure brought on by cocaine, booze, diabetes and a punishing life in the gutter. The 54-year-old is a beefier on-stage presence than you'd expect from his wraith-like album-cover photo, but the Shaolin-master grey beard, lack of teeth and deep facial fissures are testaments to a life that would have made a member of Metallica squeal like a disconsolate piglet.

Playing beauty to his beast is Marcy Levy (Marcella Detroit of Shakespears Sister in a former incarnation, as well as a backing singer for the likes of Aretha Franklin), who performs a beautiful acoustic version of her biggest hit, "Stay". Her soaring soul voice forms a workable counterpoint to Ayala's, which in its scraped-out throatiness is reminiscent of Eddie Hinton, Muscle Shoals' white-soul wunderkind, whose self-cauterising lifestyle and early death Ayala has almost imitated.

The Muscle Shoals comparisons do not end there. The best track on Straight from the Heart, and the second song Ayala plays tonight after the bumptious bajou-beat of "Damn Atchafalaya", is "The Love I Want", as good a country-soul ballad as you will hear this side of anything Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham wrote for the likes of Percy Sledge or James Carr. Similarly, "Ain't That Lovin' You" - described by Ayala as "heavy Motown" - is a sexy, robust slab of roadhouse funk, powered by the kind of chugging chords that bassist James Jamerson - the most gifted of the Funk Brothers, the Motown backing band - excelled in.

After the heartfelt sentiments of "Straight from the Heart", "Women and Whiskey" indulges a little too much in lachrymose blues clichés, but the barrelhouse boogie of "Dance with Your Baby" makes up for it - as do honky-tonk covers of Robert Johnson's "When You Got a Good Friend" and "Ramblin' on My Mind". Ayala's way with a Fender Stratocaster is exemplary - you'd expect nothing less from a man whose guitar-playing has graced the likes of Tom Waits' classic swordfishtrombones.

The only real disappointment is that Ayala decides against playing more tracks from Straight from the Heart, which has some great songs, ranging from Terry Callier-style jazz-folk to jumping blues and rockabilly. But at least he's alive.

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