Considerable heartfelt sentiment, but precious little treacly sentimentality, flowed from the stage Saturday in Long Beach during a multi-artist benefit and tribute to singer-songwriter Chris Gaffney, who died at age 57 in 2008 after battling liver cancer.
The loss was palpable on several fronts during a show that ran more than four hours at the Scottish Rite Event Center: that of a family member, friend as well as a gifted singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and bandmate.
At the top of the bill was roots rocker-songwriter Dave Alvin, who considered Gaffney his best friend and kept him close as a member of his Guilty Men band for nearly a decade.
The event also recognized his superlative band the Cold Hard Facts and his latter-day tenure with the border-crossing Hacienda Brothers, not to mention his place among the tight-knit Los Angeles-Orange County roots music community. The latter evident by the presence on the bill of James Intveld, Rick Shea, the Fabulocos and blues guitarist Kid Ramos.
Gaffney’s role as a beloved family member was evident in the presence of his widow, Julie, daughter Erika, brother and Cold Hard Facts bassist Greg and two more siblings, Robbie and Ellen.
A capacity crowd of nearly 400 was testament to the enduring appeal of Gaffney’s music.
A telling moment came courtesy of Alvin, who was backed for his mid-evening 45-minute set by the Cold Hard Facts. A scare occurred after keyboardist Wyman Reese fell ill and was ushered to a nearby hospital just as their segment was beginning; a friend of the band reported Sunday that he was treated for low blood pressure and released.
Introducing the zydeco-steeped song “East of Houston, West of Baton Rouge,” Alvin confessed, “This is a song Billy Swan and I wrote together then realized neither one of us could sing it. But with that fabulous baritone of his, Christopher recorded it [on his 1995 album ‘Loser’s Paradise’] and sang the hell out of it.” Then he lamented the absence of Gaffney’s dexterous accordion work captured on that recording.
One of Gaffney’s many gifts was his deep, rich voice, which was equally adept at confessional country, festive Tex-Mex, classic soul and R&B, as well as flat-out rock ’n’ roll liberation. At its best, Gaffney’s songwriting was the equal of Alvin and such Americana world stalwarts as Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
A testament to that was the 2009 all-star tribute album Alvin spearheaded shortly after Gaffney’s death. That album, “Man of Somebody’s Dreams,” gathered interpretations of his songs by an Americana music Who’s Who that included Ely, Los Lobos, Jim Lauderdale, X’s John Doe, Dan Penn, Freddy Fender, Boz Scaggs, Peter Case and Tom Russell.
That collection does not appear to be available on streaming services, but it remains well worth the search in physical form — as do several of Gaffney’s own excellent albums — also nowhere to be found on major services. (Hacienda Brothers and Paladins’ manager Jeb Schoonover has just compiled and produced a batch of previously unreleased Hacienda Brothers tracks for a new album titled “Western Soul.”)
One of the highlights of that album was a radical rearrangement of Gaffney’s song “Frank’s Tavern,” by Tucson, Ariz.-based indie band Calexico. Alvin chose that arrangement Saturday, which shifted dramatically from Gaffney’s original ebullient Tex-Mex two-step take. Instead, Calexico and Alvin slowed it down and shifted the mood to something more on the Leonard Cohen-Cowboy Junkies end of the pop spectrum.
“I got kind of verklempt up there,” Alvin said backstage shortly after his portion of the show. “I loved the way Calexico did it, because it captured Gaffney so perfectly without being anything like his version. Then I’d look up and see his face looking out. I got pretty emotional.”
He referred to images of Gaffney, some showing him and Alvin performing together, that were projected on one wall of the hall throughout the evening. Another silent reminder of Gaffney’s legacy was his cowboy hat and accordion on display on a short pedestal at the front of the stage.
Other performance highlights included Cold Hard Facts guitarist Danny Ott’s lead vocals on two of Gaffney’s finest songs: “Artesia,” one of many of Gaffney’s astute sketches of life in Southern California, where he spent much of his youth after his family moved west from Tucson, and “Glasshouse,” a heart-melting meditation on a love that’s dissipated.
Few writers can match the poignancy and heartbreak Gaffney nailed when he wrote: “Through a war of attrition/And constant repetition/All the life has been torn from my heart/Now the weight is too heavy/For one man to carry/And my life barely imitates art.”
That his music isn’t more widely known — “He’s become more famous in death,” Alvin noted drolly backstage — is likely because he exhibited little interest during his lifetime in cultivating a career. He was far more focused on writing and playing his songs with, and for, kindred spirits such as those who gathered to celebrate him Saturday.
As earnest and deeply felt as all the tribute performances were, they also underscored the adage that in this life, no one is indispensable, but some are irreplaceable.