It’s been 10 years since singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, Chris Gaffney, passed away, but his personal legacy remains as strong as his musical one. Behind the mass of compelling, genre-spanning songs was a perceptive, sincere, and compassionate man. This much was apparent at the Chris Gaffney Reunion Party at the Scottish Event Center in Long Beach that almost 400 of his family members, friends, and fans attended last Saturday.
Gaffney made a home and built a strong fanbase for himself in OC, despite being a self described army brat, born in Austria and eventually growing up in California and Arizona. His contribution to our local music scene remained vast until his death from liver cancer in Newport Beach in 2008.
The night featured a stacked lineup of his colleagues, including roots rock icon Dave Alvin, bluesman Kid Ramos, and members of two of Gaffney’s own bands, The Hacienda Brothers and the Cold Hard Facts. This made for a nearly five hour soundtrack as old friends reunited to celebrate the life and music of, as fellow singer-songwriter Rick Shea called him, “The deeply soulful, always unpredictable, one of a kind– Chris Gaffney.”
Los Fabulocos started off the night with their mix of accordion-driven Tex Mex, cumbia, and rock. Although the room was full of warm embraces and stories about Chris, their lively performance quickly reminded the crowd that the night was a celebration. While some audience members reminisced and looked at pictures of Chris projected on one wall, others took to the dance floor. Fabulocos frontman, Jesus Cuevas, was the only one to play the accordion that night, and he delivered a performance that surely Gaffney, an accordion maestro himself, would have commended.
Next, rockabilly staple, James Intveld and his band, the Honky Tonk Palominos, took the stage. Intveld’s set reached an emotional peak when he dedicated his song, “Love Calls” to Gaffney’s wife, Julie, who was in attendance. “Yeah, now love is talking to me, it’s a simple melody,” he sang. “It’s the sound of sweet devotion, a lullaby to set me free.”
Couples swayed on the dance floor as Intveld crooned his Western ballad. It’s interesting to note that after his set, Intveld spent the rest of the night watching the other acts and mingling the rest of the crowd. He seemed not only approachable, but excited to reminisce about Gaffney with anyone else who was there to pay their respects.
The Cold Hard Facts, some of Gaffney’s longest-running musical collaborators, were the next to pay tribute to their late friend. Chris’ brother Greg, who was also the original bassist of the Cold Hard Facts, joined the band onstage for a few songs. Rick Shea, who has had a successful solo career since his years with the Cold Hard Facts, also stepped on stage and led the band in a rendition of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.”
“We’re gonna do a couple of songs that we used to do back in those days. And just like in those days, we are not over-rehearsed, “ laughed Shea. Nevertheless, the Cold Hard Facts played a transcendent set of soul-stirring songs.
The band seemed to hit a stride when lead guitarist Danny Ott, sang “Artesia,” a song which couldn’t have been written by anyone but Chris. The lyrics show that Gaffney was just as abstract a thinker as he was experiential, as they call back teenage memories of cruising through Southern California and the nostalgic scent of nearby dairy farms. The lyrics lament, “Because now when the wind blows from out of Artesia, you can’t smell 1965.” Most would agree that very few songwriters could write such a beautiful song about cow manure.
Later on, Dave Alvin, who’s known as a founding member of The Blasters as well as for his own prolific solo career, joined the Cold Hard Facts in their musical tribute. Alvin, who considered Gaffney one of his closest friends and even recruited him to play guitar in his backing band, the Guilty Men, was quick to express his admiration for Chris. As he walked onstage, he looked into the crowd and admitted, “I miss Chris every day.”
Alvin then led the Cold Hard Facts through a series of Gaffney’s songs. He told the stories behind a few of them, including the anthemic, “Fight (Tonight’s the Night).” Apparently, Gaffney had called Alvin and asked if he’d like to meet up for a drink. Alvin, who was not in the healthiest relationship at the time, responded, “Well, tonight’s the night, Chris, that we stay home and fight.”
“He called me like an hour later and said, ‘I wrote a song for ya, Dave,” recalled Alvin.
Bassist Mike Barry and drummer John Senne provided a solid rhythm section for each tune, as Doug Livingston played swelling melodies on his steel guitar. Unfortunately, keyboardist/producer Wyman Reese had to leave the show before playing due to a minor health issue. “We love him and we miss him,” said Alvin. “He was the other guy. Danny [Ott] understood Chris, I understood Chris, Wyman understood Chris better than anybody,” he reflected.
The band then invited up crowd favorite, RJ Simensen, to play the washboard on “East of Houston, West of Baton Rouge,” which refreshed the party vibe has the dance floor quickly filled. As Shea, Ott, and Alvin traded guitar solos, Simensen bounced around the stage and scratched his chest plate washboard.
The Cold Hard Facts maintained this kind of energy throughout the duration of their set. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could sit still through such a soulful and eclectic mix of zydeco, Tex Mex, and rock.
The Hacienda Brothers, another one of Gaffney’s groups, were set to finish up the night. This was no simple feat, but their signature honky tonk soul created the perfect feel-good atmosphere to conclude the event. Dave Gonzalez, who’s also known for his work with The Paladins, breezed through one expressive guitar solo after the next while singing songs that Gaffney once sang. Between songs, Gonzalez took a moment to confess, “We miss him dearly. This is really tough, I’m gonna tell you right now.”
For the last tune of the night, local blues legend Kid Ramos was invited to the stage to play a blues instrumental. Fabulocos frontman Jesus Cuevas also joined in and the show ended in a whirlwind of solos and showmanship.
Less than half a keg of Budweiser was all that remained as the crowd funneled out onto the sidewalk and into their cars. This gathering of musicians and music lovers showed that Chris Gaffney is dearly missed. However, it’s equally evident that his songs remain timeless.