El, El, Bee…El, El, Bee…That was the chant that was bouncing off the walls of downtown Austin one Friday last March. Even though the city was in the full-tilt throes of South By Southwest — the one time of year when you really and truly could hit a musician no matter what direction you swung your cat — the LLB phrase stood out amid the street noise. Which wasn’t that surprising, considering it was only two years ago the lil’ ol’ power trio from Texas known as Los Lonely Boys set the all-time SXSW attendance record, drawing more than 25,000 fans to Auditorium Shores on Town Lake. Most of that turnout consisted of locals who had already adopted Los Lonely Boys as their own, never mind the small detail that they were really from San Angelo and had deep roots there.
Though Los Lonely Boys were born, raised and still live in the biggest city in Texas without an interstate highway, Austin was where they became the hottest band to emerge from the club scene in ages, where all the right people stepped up to lend a hand, where they recorded their debut platinum album, where local radio started playing their music ahead of the curve, and where “Heaven”, the global pop hit of 2004, was launched.
Besides validating their coolness in A-town (hey, that’s Matthew McConaughey’s phrase, not mine), the LLB cheer signaled it was happening all over again for Los Lonely Boys. In exchange for putting up with long lines, longer waits, and one very packed and sweaty room, patient souls got the full Los Lonely Boys saga — past, present and future — rolled out before their very eyes and ears over five hours. And if you paid close attention, you came away with plenty of answers to the cosmic rhetorical, “Just who are these vatos locos?” — and more than a little awe at how these Mexican-Americans from West Texas managed to realize their impossible dream.
The Los Lonely day began with the premiere screening of Los Lonely Boys: Cottonfields And Crossroads Friday afternoon at the Austin Convention Center. Even there, among swarms of alt types from around the world, the homies from Angelo and their street teams from around the state stood out as fans and families, not industry insiders. They were waiting for the start of filmmaker Hector Galán’s 60-minute documentary, which tracks the improbable ascent of Los Lonely Boys over the course of three years — beginning in late 2002 just as they were beginning to pull in a crowd at the Saxon Pub in Austin, which can hold 150 people on a good night, if the fire marshal isn’t looking, and concluding with their triumphant return to San Angelo in concert in the spring of 2005.
Having your own movie before your second album is a clear sign the Garza brothers are not your normal band. But theirs is not your normal music story. Galán gets that, in no small part because he grew up in the same Mexican-American barrio in San Angelo (El Pozo, or The Hole) as the Garza Brothers, 30 years before they came along. Aided by a combination of fortunate timing and a deep familiarity with their particular roots, Galán documents the rags-to-riches story and creates as compelling a piece of work as anything he has done. Which is saying a lot, given that he has emerged as the leading documenter of the Mexican-American experience with films such as Songs Of The Homeland and Accordion Dreams as well as the PBS series “Chicano!: The History Of The Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement.”
The Garza brothers are the latest chapter. A song sung slightly off-key in a backyard accompanied by a chirping cricket sets the stage:
We’re just the lonely, lonely boys
We ran away from home
So I could be on my own
Nobody cares, nobody cares
We’re all alone.
The singer is Enrique Garza — a.k.a. Ringo Sr., the father of Henry, JoJo, and Ringo Garza. The tune is a song he made up, which provided the inspiration for the band’s name.
The moment provides a delicious contrast to glimpses of Los Lonely Boys’ homecoming concert in San Angelo, where that LLB chant is heard again along with the usual rock ‘n’ roll cacophony of loud music, screaming fans, screaming guitars, flashing lights, and raised lighters. The camera captures a few atypical rock ‘n’ roll touches too, such as the lanky Henry, the cool daddy groover lead guitarist who has more than a little of Sir Doug Sahm in him, making the sign of the cross before the show. It zooms in for close-ups of forearms and hands adorned with homemade tattoos that are about as far away from a Hollywood pro job as permanent body markings get. The ink says it all: These dudes’ hard life is hardly a pose.
In the tradition of roots music filmmaker Les Blank, Galán’s eye finds beauty in spare, expansive landscapes around San Angelo, a ranching community of some 90,000 folks, one-third of them Mexican-American. He finds beauty, too, in the faded pink stucco exterior of a run-down cantina in El Pozo, and in the shacks scattered throughout the barrio. Older witnesses testify on camera how it wasn’t that long ago that “Meskins” were segregated from the Anglos socially and economically as well as physically, eternally mired in the struggle to get by. “We picked cotton from sunup to sundown,” the elder Ringo recalls with absolutely no fondness.
The glue holding the Garzas and other Mexican-American families in San Angelo together was music. In that respect, the local Mexicano culture is a rich one, built upon such storied groups as Los Tejanos, a 1950s orquesta that played Latin-style big-band swing with Spanish vocals, and Tortilla Factory, a ten-piece band that ranked with Little Joe y La Familia, Ruben Ramos, and Sunny & the Sunliners as Chicano trailblazers in Texas during the tumultuous 1970s. Tortilla Factory one-upped them all with their lead singer, Bobby Butler, El Charro Negro, an African-American who sang in flawless Spanish.
Henry (27), JoJo (25), and Ringo (24) unwittingly soaked up that history as youngsters at Sunday afternoon backyard barbecues, at dances, and in cantinas — wherever the entertainment was Los Falcones. The regionally popular conjunto was a family affair that included their father, five of his brothers, and his sister.
“I remember our dad pulling us up onstage to sing ‘La Bamba’ with him and our uncles,” Ringo Jr. says in the film. Henry wrote his first song at age 4. “I knew it was in me,” he says. JoJo learned piano and guitar before settling on bass. Ringo, the youngest, was drumming by age 9.