A couple of years back, at the last Jamtigua concert Tom Graham and Willie Gomez got on stage with their band, The Blue Dawgs. The crowd leapt to their feet for the first time that afternoon and started dancing. I don’t remember their opener, but I do remember Tom, his hair spilling over his shoulders, as he blew into his harp a bleating and furious rock riff. I remember Willie leaning back and wailing on his guitar, coaxing the blood of angels from each note. It was old-school, like the days of Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, when blues met rock with balls and a few white boys did both genres justice. It blew me away. It was flashback central, minus some guy selling tabs of windowpane.
The gig that afternoon was far too short, but one thing was for sure, these boys, who usually play small venues like Café No Sé and La Sala, were meant for the big stage where they can really tear it up and show off the breadth of their chops.
It’s in the smaller venues, however, where you will mostly find them these days. At Café No Sé, where they play every Wednesday night, the shows are intimate and spontaneous. The chemistry (altered as it often is) of two musicians who have played together for over 18 years is evident. A typical set at No Sé might include John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, The Dead’s, Friend of the Devil, Cab Calloway’s Minnie The Moocher, and originals like The Antigua Shuffle.
At La Sala, where they play on Fridays with the Chupacabras, the band moves in and out of genres – from blues to rock to salsa to reggae, and back again.
These guys are not to be missed at either venue!
Below is an interview with Tom and Willie conducted by Wendy Wever, former publisher of Austin Daze. They’ve got some great stories to tell, but if you really want to get a shot of their energy (and maybe an Ilegal Mezcal) head on down to No Sé or La Sala this week.
Wendy Wever: How did you end up in Antigua?
Willie Gomez: I was born here in Guatemala in the city in Zone 2 in ’55, it was a really nice, small, beautiful city back then. We moved to New Orleans when I was 2. When I turned 6 we moved to Houston and I stayed there for about 25 years. My brothers and I started a band together when I was, like, 8 years old. I was the drummer. I played the drums for a few years but when the band broke up that led me to start playing the guitar. Cause, I was like, “I can carry the guitar everywhere with me.” I was about 14 when I started playing the guitar.
WW: So was that the reason you chose to play the guitar?
WG: Pretty much it was. When I was little, I used to sing in choir. I was raised Catholic, and my brother and I used to do harmonies to the Ave Maria in Latin. Music was always in my blood. It’s because my dad is a piano player and my mom’s family are all musicians. They’re a bunch of bohemians. So, once I decided that’s what I wanted to do, I just moved forward and blew off college and started playing music and seeing how I could make a living.
So I lived in Houston for a long time, then I moved to Austin and I played up there for a while. One of our friends had a job that supported us. The rest of us were bum-ass musicians that didn’t make money, so we used to go to the grocery store and steal to get a meal.
Then I moved to Colorado for 8 years and played music. After that I got sick of living in the United States, so my brother and I decided to move back here. This was in 1989. I ended up meeting Tom. We’ve been playing together for about as long as I’ve been living here. It ended up being a perfect place for me. It suits me just fine. I’ve been here for 18 years now.
WW: What’s it like to be a musician in Antigua?
WG: It’s cool. I love Antigua. Being a musician is just what I do. It doesn’t matter where I am. When I was a kid, I decided that’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I’ve always done. I had other odd jobs in Colorado, wherever… Here I worked for my brother for a while at the restaurant and this and that. But once I figured out I could actually make a living playing a little music and live, then I just started doing that. So I just started getting bands together. I had some boys from Livingston playing with me for a while. We played kinda Caribbean music. They all were from Livingston, except for this one Mayan guy on the bass. He sang like a bird. They had the whole Garifuna thing going on. We learned a bunch of songs. We had a great Garifuna trip. It was great, it was great. We played and packed this place, Biancos. It was a great place.
But Antigua, as you know, has always been problematic with the noise. So that place got shut down. I also owned a couple of places which got shut down cause of all the noise. Wherever I open up a place it always gets shut down cause I always make a bunch of noise. So now I just let somebody else deal with all that and I just show up and play.
WW: Do you have any problems now with the sound ordinances here in Antigua?
WG: Well, occasionally the owners just ask us to keep it down. I personally don’t’ deal with it anymore. I just follow orders from the bar owners. They’ll come in and tell us the cops are outside and we need to keep it down or stop playing. Or start again and so on. We just try to go with it.
WW: So where can we go see you play?
WG: You can go see Tom and me on Wednesdays at Café No Sé from 9pm till whenever they shut us down, and that would be around midnight. We sing Blues and whatever comes up. We don’t really have an itinerary. We don’t have any set list. Although there are some songs we do pretty regularly which are classic blues or standards. Everything else is whatever comes up – an original of mine or Tom’s, or a song of a friend of ours. Or I’ll remember a song I haven’t played in 20 years, so I’ll play it.
On Fridays I play with The Chupacabras at La Sala. There we usually play Blues, Soul Reggae, and Rock. Every now and then they want some Salsa too. We do quit a bit of parties in Santiago Atitlán and we go check out the concert Roberto Luz puts on up there every year. I always end up playing with someone. Last time I ended up playing the drums.
WW: What do you think of La Cuadra?
WG: It has some great funny stories and great horoscopes. I love the pictures.