Cadillac Angels to perform three area shows
FARMINGTON – It’s OK if you think rock ‘n’ roll is dead. But it’s probably best if you don’t say that within earshot of Cadillac Angels frontman Tony Balbinot.
Balbinot, whose band will perform a trio of local shows this weekend, grew up worshipping at the altar of guitar gods like Duane Eddy, B.B. King, Link Wray and Dick Dale — legendary players who seemingly could make that instrument talk, dance, sing, bark or howl on command with their rootsy technique. As the child of a single mother in a small town in rural Illinois, Balbinot became focused on the electric guitar at an early age because his household didn’t even feature a TV.
But it did have a record player. And Balbinot had access to the great popular music of that day through a virtually endless series of 45 RPM singles that came his way through a stroke of good fortune.
“There were only two jukeboxes in the whole town,” Balbinot said by phone last week from Jerome, Ariz., where he was preparing for a series of weekend gigs. “There was this guy who serviced them, and my mom (a waitress in a local diner) had a deal with him that when the records got too scratchy, he would give them to her. Instead of finding milk bottles on our front step in the morning, we’d find a box of records.”
The young Balbinot soaked up what he heard. To this day, he still gets chills when he thinks about the first time he put on a record by Eddy, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer best known for his hits “Peter Gunn,” “Because They’re Young” and “Rebel Rouser.”
“It cut me clear to the bone,” Balbinot said, explaining that was probably the instant when he fell in love with the electric guitar. “After that, when I heard an acoustic guitar, I thought it sounded kind of puny.”
Balbinot never shook that idea. To this day, he says, he doesn’t even own an acoustic guitar, much preferring the powerful, amplified twang of the electric version. It was a tone that always spoke to him, and it wasn’t long before he was exploring it himself, gravitating toward the rockabilly and surf sounds that dominated the airwaves during his youth.
Balbinot never drifted from his rock ‘n’ roll roots, even if the rest of the world seems to have moved on. With hip-hop, watery country-pop and R&B now dominating the airwaves, while rock is relegated to second-class status, Balbinot bristles at the way the musical style he favors is dismissed in many circles.
“That disappoints me,” he said. “They’re trying to make it seem like this music is all nostalgia. Well, this music was born out of country and blues. It wasn’t just a decade of Elvis or Buddy Holly.”
But music industry types are always trying to shove rock music into places it doesn’t want to go, Balbinot noted.
“They’re always typecasting it and pigeonholing it by decades,” he said. “They do it to our music, but they don’t do it to jazz or blues … They don’t give jazz a decade handle. They don’t do it to R&B.”
Balbinot said the situation has gotten so bad that when he tries to list his band’s music through online sales sites such as CD Baby or Amazon, “sometimes rock ‘n’ roll isn’t even on there.”
It’s not as if Balbinot is even attached to that moniker. He much prefers the description of fellow guitarist Dave Alvin, former member of such trail-blazing groups as the Blasters and X who now works primarily in the Americana field.
“Dave says, ‘It’s American music,’” Balbinot said. “If you’re from here, you play American music — it’s part folk music, part country music, part blues. Some is electric, and some is acoustic.”
And if everybody could just leave it at that, Balbinot would be happy. He’d much rather spend his time talking about how the most accomplished artists are able to reach people emotionally and transcend the distance between performer and listener.
“Carl Perkins and Bo Diddley had a huge influence on me rhythmically,” he said. “Rhythm can be hypnotic. It becomes almost tribal. You look around the room, and everybody’s dancing. I love bringing them all together with that rhythm. Even a one-chord song can totally mesmerize a crowd of different people.”
Balbinot long ago came to appreciate the beauty of uncluttered arrangements with a focus on rhythm. When he got started in the music business, he typically played in four-piece outfits, feeling like he needed a second guitar to fill out the rhythm part while he played lead.
“It seemed so bare and sparse to me without having that other guitar player,” he said. “Not having that changes your playing because then you’re playing a blend of rhythm and lead.”
Eventually, Balbinot came to feel comfortable doing that and now strongly prefers the less-is-more approach. Occasionally, other guitarists sit in with the Cadillac Angels, but not for long.
“I enjoy it for a little while, but it starts to feel crowded,” he said. “There’s nothing more honest than rock ‘n’ roll performed by a trio … there’s a real in-your-face honesty about it.”
Balbinot also doesn’t have much use for fancy, virtuoso guitarists, favoring a red meat approach. He recalled a conversation he had with Wray one time when the two were on tour together.
“I was talking about how the guitar is like a sword and some guitarists are like Zorro, who can put out a candle with a swing of their sword,” Balbinot said, laughing. “And then I said, ‘We don’t finesse it — we just love to get in there and hack at it.”
Though he has spent many years on the road with the Cadillac Angels, Balbinot said he still loves the challenge of entertaining a crowd several nights a week.
“Oh, yeah, that’s pretty much my favorite way to do music,” he said. “I like to record, and I’ve put out 17 records. But performing live is really what I enjoy the most.
“But I’ll be honest with you – it’s the best when you can get the people to go with you where you want to go, when you can just get lost in the music. I was in Santa Cruz one time watching Link Wray, and I turned to my drummer and said, ‘He’s not even here, and he’s taken everybody with him.’”
Those moments of transcendence are rare, he said, and should be treasured by both artist and listener.
“You can’t plan that,” he said. “It just happens. And the audience is as much a part of making that happen as the performer. Those are the moments you live for.”
Nights like that can make up for a lot of disappointments, even regrets. Though Balbinot said he tries to take the attitude of legendary Italian film director Federico Fellini, who regarded regrets as a waste of time, he often finds himself wishing he had done things differently when he was a young musician.
“I regret that I fell to peer pressure sometimes and allowed people to manipulate me,” he said. “Sometimes people told me, ‘You’ve got to play it this way’ or ‘You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.’ I really admire any kind of artist, right from the get-go, who does not compromise. People who have managed to do that, I respect because I have compromised, although I don’t do it much anymore. But I certainly did when I was younger.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: Performances by the Cadillac Angels
When and where: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 26 at Crash Music at the Aztec Theater, 104 N. Main Ave. in Aztec; 7 p.m. Friday, May 27 at the River Reach Terrace in Berg Park as part of Riverfest; and 5:30 p.m. Saturday, May 28 at the Rocky Reach Landing in Berg Park as part of Riverfest.
Admission: $15 for the Crash Music show at crashmusicaztec.com, free for the Riverfest shows
For more information: cadillacangels.com