For well more than a decade, Chris Cruz has made a living playing his acoustic guitar and hosting events such as open-mic nights in wine bars, restaurants and other unsuspecting establishments. He’s also released a substantial amount of original material. But the songwriter and rebel at heart quickly learned that being based in Orange County meant that not all of his audiences would take kindly to his modern folk-protest songs.
“[My] folk record was released in 2008,” Cruz explains. “It came out right when the shit hit the fan as far as economics and the stock market and all that. It was kind of coming from a Neil Young sort of protest vibe. I thought it was completely positive, but when I started playing music in Orange County and especially South Orange County, I started getting a little bit of pushback.”
Consequently, Cruz adopted an expansive arsenal of cover tunes that are more accessible and, frankly, keep him working. His ever-growing repertoire includes everything from Social Distortion front man Mike Ness’ solo material to the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’”—songs that seem very different on the surface, but to which Cruz brings his own style and perspective. “I’ve always been a song guy,” he says. “I don’t care where it comes from.”
Although Cruz was initially skeptical about playing cover gigs, he’s found that studying other’s songs keeps him sharp and even improves his own songwriting. “You learn so much from doing the covers, if you really get into it,” he says. “Because you’ve got to learn some things that other people did, you start to get more bullets in your gun to do your own stuff.”
Cruz does sprinkle some of his original tunes into his live performances, and last year, he released the poignant, accessible song “I Like the Red, I Like the Blue.” His latest single, “Dead or Alive,” is much more straightforward but shares a similar unifying sentiment, with a chorus aimed at the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “We’re gonna bring you back/Dead or alive/Hunt you till the end of time.”
“It seems to me that a song that’s like, ‘Hey, we’re hunting for Bin Laden,’ that’s something that everybody can get behind,” Cruz says. He first recorded the track more than 10 years ago for his On My Mind album, but he decided to revisit it for his upcoming EP. The new version was recorded with background vocals, and finger-picking electric guitar and blazing pedal-steel licks (provided by Tom Bremer and Jeremy Long, respectively) add an intense, driving energy. Percussionist Matt Froehlich holds it down with a powerful, textured rhythm on his signature cajon kit. Cruz’s voice is simultaneously inquisitive, desperate, melancholic and angry.
Intending to record a 12-song album with Bruce Witkin, Cruz became disheartened when the legendary producer advised him that full-length albums just don’t sell like they used to. Cruz then turned to OC folk staple Bobbo Byrnes, a longtime friend who runs his own studio in Anaheim, to record “I Like the Red, I Like the Blue.”
“I knew I needed to get that song recorded, so I went over to Bobbo and started working,” Cruz explains. “It went splendidly, and we recorded another four for the EP.”
Until the album is released (the date is still pending), you can catch Cruz when he opens for Don McLean on Sunday at the Coach House or at his regular gigs every second Saturday at Beach Hut Deli in Huntington Beach and every third Sunday at Downtown Fullerton’s Vino Nostra.
Chris Cruz with Don McLean at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930; thecoachhouse.com. Sun., 7 p.m. $59.50.