Howling Diablos: Detroit stars of a million bars
Let's hear it for those good, old, 'dirty, filthy, trash-dumpster blues'
Published: October 19, 2011
The band pauses before playing through "Gone So Long."
"'Green Bottle' ..." Someone suggests for the song list. The bass noodles patiently in the background of the conversation.
"I mean, 'Car Wash,' I'm cool with, ..." Day considers. The bass player bounces a repetitive fifth interval between two tones, plucking the strings to himself.
"'Green Bottle,' you're cool with that, right?" Evans asks. The bass sounds almost sitar-like and haunting as if the bass player were accompanying music in his imagination.
"Yeah. There's something in 'Gone So Long' that's like, weird. It's always weird to me. ..." Day attempts to articulate his recollection, but Evans interrupts.
"Let's play it. Just listen and let's play it." Evans says as the guitar immediately strikes a rhythmic introductory vamp and his harmonica joins the mix.
The bass falls right into place. Mo Hollis has played bass with the Diablos almost from their inception in 1990 when they'd served as the entertainment for an opening night of Gary Grimshaw's poster art at the Michigan Gallery. Hollis is understated, a slight, attractive black man with small rows of braids. He sees Detroit as an industrial town that, somewhere between corruption and stupidity, destroyed its blues legacy. He lived in Hamtramck back in the 1960s when the state of Michigan ran the interstate highway, I-75, directly through the black center of commerce.
Hollis remembers when he used to play on that freeway when they were building it and believes it was the state's ignorance that destroyed the culture that propped up Detroit. He'll say that Gross knows better than himself, having played with Hooker, but he imagines the '50s to the '60s, when walking down the city street could mean bumping into B.B. King — or John Lee Hooker or Miles Davis, who lived there for a while. Hollis resurrects an actual, amazing, creative center and a place where black people would send their children to college, and flatly reports the actual outcome, a community pushed back into poverty out of stupidity.
The Diablos' recording for 2005's Car Wash, in contrast to this year's Ultra Sonic Gas Can, had been pared down considerably. Their range of rock, blues, jazz and funk spanning 20 years of music-making had become more and more about feel, physicality, a beat. The paring down is well-represented on the Howling Diablos cover for Car Wash, picturing an abandoned car wash — a corner shop for a Detroit neighborhood surrounded by leafless trees, unplowed snow, faded and hand-written plywood signs, and the five members of the Diablos standing informally on the corner; Gross holds a phone receiver at what is probably one of the last public phones anywhere in a city today. They're smiling as they offer Gross their cell phones. The car wash's dreary desolation matches the Diablos' sound.
Hollis believes that because of the city's failure, people just start doing things straight from the heart. He believes out of chaos always comes really good music.
The Diablos recorded the blues as if auguring the dark storm clouds of financial strife that would continue to gather over the city — a sound Gross refers to as "dirty, filthy, trash dumpster blues, the kind blaring out of a corner bar." Hollis is proudest of Car Wash, seeing it as an amalgamation of blues and soul — and admiring that, as a band, they reinvented it and reinvented it and reinvented it. For him, at the root of it all, it's still blues music, and that, he believes, carries across the world.
In 2005, the Diablos' blues were just the right prescription, for themselves and for a city in need of a groove, and an idea, a message: Keep on moving.
Evans suggests the band rehearse their song "6th Street Opera," and immediately his sax cuts through the air with a wailing, (as in haunting), opener and stops mid-line.
"Hey, let's work on — Evil, let's work on our thing, man," Evans suggests.
"Yeah, what should our thing be?" Eric "Evil" Gustafson, the guitarist inquires.
"I don't know, but I always hear you trying to get a thing going ... "
"Well, I used to wanna do a counter thing — but then I realized it's better when you do the opener."
" ... But the other part ... where we go, uh ... "Evans blows a melody. "The thing when we come to the verses. I always hear you fiddling around in there — "
"Oh, like, ..." Gustafson plucks tones from a minor scale. Evans adds his opener over the guitar line.
Voices collect one on top of another. "Perfect, that sounds cool," says Gustafson. "That sounds fantastic," says Evans.
"That sounds great," says Day.
Evans plays his opener and stops once again mid-line —
"Now, here's an idea: Why don't you try to do the, uh, thing that you do on the other thing on the get-go. ..."
"Oooh!" Gustafson enthuses with immediate understanding, and they fold into the opener together with ease and a kind of magic. The band, that has been patiently observing Evans and Gustafson, responds and they play "6th Street Opera" with togetherness, a unity in timing and feel that comes with experience.
The guitar pumps steady rhythmic dissonance like a car horn, the drums patter like adrenaline, and the groove is dramatic. Gross' lyric describes Iggy Pop pushing the boundaries, and summer nights on a city street when everyone senses the energy and drama. The music can easily elicit a sense of or a scene in Detroit, a scene the Diablos know well, having performed years ago at their friend Jim McGovern's old bar, the Park Club, on Woodward and Six Mile, an area notorious for crackheads, a 24-hour gay porn video shop, and sleazy motels. The club was a manifestation of knickknacks, hockey sticks, long tables and mismatched chairs, imitation wood paneling and clunky old pool tables — all beneath plastic ceiling tiles colored red, blue, green and yellow. The long bar frequently featured a variety of people perched on stools: fat, gray-haired white men in business suits, bland, middle-aged black women, a scrawny black man, a beatnik and a man with a thick red moustache who wore a straw hat and loomed at the doorway. He might have been McGovern himself, the proprietor. The Diablos' "6th Street Opera" evokes activities closer to midnight, when, as Gross says, "everyone's got their buzz on" — it's a time where anything goes and anything can happen.
Guitarist Gustafson leads them into "Funky Parade" without much conversation. It's more playful and upbeat in contrast to the dirty blues of Car Wash. Day stops mid-song and suggests a snare rhythm like a standard New Orleans march — and Evans picks up at the sax solo to integrate Day's suggested snare rhythm.
The band plays two more tunes, seemingly less for practice and more for pleasure.
"All right — let's try 'Blues King,'" Gross announces.
"One ... two ..." Day clicks his sticks and they launch into a comfortable tale of an older blues man living in California with diabetes, taking naps, listening to Muddy Water recordings, and listening to his grandson enjoying rap. Gustafson plays a long, well-developed guitar solo that captivates like the storyline lyric. He builds emotion through a combination of recurring musical themes.
"Evil, that was Evil!" Evans says admiringly at the conclusion of "Blues King." "When you started going way up with that little finger, I was like, 'Damn, bro!'"
"I discovered that with whatshisname? Uh — Marky Pasman."
"Yeah, yeah — that's killer."
"Yeah, a discovery thing happening," Gustafson giggles. "Thanks."
They pack up their equipment and Evans hands out directions for the upcoming outdoor gig.
"Feels really good," Day says to Gross suddenly.
"Fun playin' with you, man," Gross replies.
It seems like so much work: to rehearse, to meet up with the band members on time, pack the vans, drive an hour, unpack the equipment, assemble the equipment on stage, perform for an hour and a half, focus on making music, make a connection with the band members, and entertain the audience. But Evans measures his success in terms of working, creating and cooperating within the world he lives in, a way of perceiving his journey that is well-represented in the title of the Diablos' 2009 album, Divine Trash Highway. This performance is not a glamorous gig like the filled-to-capacity State Theater, or opening for Tom Petty in front of a crowd of 15,000 fans.
It is hot outside at 5 p.m. when they arrive and unpack their equipment. They don't play until 7. Dave Swain, an old comrade from Evans and Gross' band the Urbations wears a Howling Diablos T-shirt and greets them as they set up their equipment. He taught Gross how to play the guitar. He ran a big band, the II V I, that included Evans' early alto saxophone playing years, the Wayne State University years.
He recognizes the Diablos have an advantage, having lived fully as musicians. "A mid-life crisis is never an issue: 'Oh! I should've been in a rock band. ... Wait a minute, I am in a rock band — and successful at it," Swain muses with dry humor and admiration. His hands tremble as he eats his festival ice cream with a plastic spoon.
Fortunately, the sun shifts off the stage. Cooler temperatures incline people to move in closer towards the Diablos; they clap their hands and move freely. The sun yellows on the Bell Tower at the center of the college campus. People picnic on blankets in the shade and grassy patches on either side of the concrete walkways.
Gross is the connection to the audience, calling out to them, 'How y'all doin'? Make some noise!"
It's a different scene compared to a gig at a club, bar or theater. Here there are families and couples, food booths and passers-by. The Diablos conclude with "Go Gene Go" — and the crowd gathers and cheers loudly at the big finish.
Gross is unstoppable, with boyish looks and a sense of humor. He considers "Go Gene Go" one of his best songs. The autobiographical lyrics tell the tale of childhood disillusionment and the moment Gross discovered drummer Gene Krupa. While Day's drums thump on the outdoor stage like Krupa's "Sing Sing Sing," and Evans' tenor saxophone chromatically vamps in rhythm, Gross tells the tale of his parents divorcing when he was 7 years old. While growing up in northwest Detroit in a time when divorce was unusual, Gross learned about breaking the mold. His mother, a painter and artist who dated many beatniks, once gave him a Gene Krupa album. Gross sings, "I knew I'd be all right if I could keep a beat." All the musicians contribute to the beat for this particular Krupa show-stopper. Jimi Hendrix's 1967 Monterey Pop Festival stunt of setting his guitar on fire had inspired Gross years ago to wonder, "Why can't I do that on drums?" and henceforth, the Diablos entertained crowds with a "Go Gene Go" flaming finale (until the tragic 2003 death of 96 fans during a Rhode Island, Station Club pyrotechnic rock show of the band, Great White). Older video footage preserves the anticipated ritual in which Gross lights two sticks on fire and strikes a lone drum head accompanied by the band's hypnotic drum set, congas, tambourine and cowbell. Gross wears a genie hat, and he lights the drum head on fire, conjuring the flames with hovering hands, willing the flames to grow. The crowd's screams and cheers rise as Gross kicks the drum over and subdues the fire.
Hendrix's flaming guitar could have easily reflected the social unrest of the late '60s, the chaos that sent a teenage Gross hurrying home to watch the smoke rise over Detroit streets. It was the same time that John Sinclair had managed the MC5, a time he recognized as a mass movement, an opportunity to change the way American society was organized.
"We failed completely," Sinclair lamented when recently asked whether or not his efforts in the 1960s made a difference. "Now," he said, "there's no movement. There's two wars going on, war profits tied to the media, and no movement."
On the evening of this outdoor gig, there is no fire. A drummer friend named Muruga, as well as their previous guitar player Jeff Grand, join the Diablos on stage. The finale is drawn out, extending every instrumental flourish. They linger on an excessive, classic "big finish."
It's 8:30 p.m. Time to pack up the equipment all over again.
A couple, who purchased the band's Green Bottle CD, lingers outside of the performers' tent.
"Excuse me," the woman asks strangers around the tent's entrance. "They announced that the band would be available for autographs at the merch tent, but no one is there. Can you get this signed for us?" She is holding the disc tightly with both hands. "We saw them at a bar in the Comerica Park too. They were great."
Evans emerges from the tent and signs the CD. He's tired. A man with a swollen, bandaged calf and a gray-haired Mohawk wants a CD but can't walk the distance to the merchandise tent, and asks around until someone takes his money and returns with it. The bassist, Mo Hollis, signs the man's CD with a pen, procured from a woman's purse.
Richard "Red," a large bellied ex-motorcycle club member and the Diablos roadie stands just outside the performance tent too. He'd remained stone-faced for much of the event, but breaks into a smile when Evans says, "Hey, thanks for your help, man." Red's face softens for a brief moment.
"I had fun," he says simply.
Evans returns to his home just outside of Detroit. He lives on a tree-lined street with attractive brick homes, not far from a large cemetery. His basement, like Gross' basement, is a creative space where Evans' wife, Bette, works in her design studio. Her artwork is on every Diablos T-shirt, album cover, bumper sticker and concert poster. They've rearranged the basement space to make room for Evans' instrument repair shop, previously located for 30 years at Royal Music down the street, but this past year, between the economy and some management blunders, the store closed for good.
Evans, despite the depressed economy, has work. The Howling Diablos are a working band, having seen the best and worst of gigs, even recently performing on the floor of a suburban pizza joint, a circumstance some artists might consider intolerable. The recollection of such humble surroundings has Evans quiet with a distant look in his eye.
But asked whether or not it was fun, his reply was immediate with an emphatic period at the end.
The Howling Diablos latest album, Ultra Sonic Gas Can, is available now on vinyl, download and CD.
> Email Annette Evans