One of the survivors of the ‘80s L.A. rock scene, L.A. Guns, will perform tonight in Bend (see “If you go”).
But before we go any further, we must address a subject that has dogged the band for the past few years.
You see, there are two bands touring under the L.A. Guns name. One features original Guns guitarist Tracii Guns, and one features singer Phil Lewis and drummer Steve Riley, both members of the “classic” Guns lineup that enjoyed significant success in the late 1980s.
The band playing in Bend tonight is the latter, the one with Lewis and Riley. Lewis, it should be noted, provided the vocals you may remember on big hits like “The Ballad of Jayne,” “Rip and Tear” and “Never Enough.”
To market a band without Lewis' vocals as L.A. Guns is “preposterous,” according to Riley, who spoke with The Bulletin last week from his home in Los Angeles.
“You can't do this band without Phil Lewis singing,” he said. “This is the band you want to see. This is the real (L.A. Guns).”
How things got to this point is complicated. Tracii Guns founded L.A. Guns way back in the early 1980s, but that band eventually merged with another and became Guns N' Roses. (Yes, the Guns N' Roses.) Shortly thereafter, Guns reformed the original band and added Lewis and Riley to the lineup.
That lineup released the band's second album, 1989's “Cocked & Loaded,” which spawned the aforementioned hits, pushed L.A. Guns onto MTV, and eventually went platinum. Their third album, “Hollywood Vampires,” came out in 1991 and went gold, just before a wave of grunge came down from Seattle and wiped L.A. Guns and their ilk — so-called “hair metal” bands — off the charts.
Throughout the '90s, L.A. Guns released albums and toured, and in 2002, Tracii Guns left the band to pursue other projects, while Lewis and Riley soldiered on. When Guns' other bands didn't pan out, he hired some players and began booking shows again as L.A. Guns, despite the fact that the Lewis/Riley version of the band never stopped working.
Which is all to say that figuring out what's up with L.A. Guns these days is a bit of a mess. Or at least it used to be, Riley said.
“When Tracii started his band, I told the guys we could do two things. We could either go to court and be tied up for five years trying to get him to stop doing this and (neither band) plays, or we could just keep going out ... and doing great shows and playing L.A. Guns music the way it sounded every night, and that's what we've been doing,” he said. “And now the confusion is going away. Everybody's kind of realizing that that other L.A. Guns doesn't sound or look or even have the vibe of the real band.”
And so, we focus on the Lewis/Riley version of L.A. Guns, a group that can best be described as thankful to still be on the road, playing their songs for people who like them.
“We are a classic rock band now,” Riley said, his voice thick with an East Coast accent and the muck that comes from years on tour. “We have about nine songs that we have to play every night because the fans want to hear them, and we pepper the rest of the set with newer stuff and obscure stuff from the older albums.
“There's a bunch of stuff we have to play and we're cool with that because it's our songs. We wrote them,” he continued. “And if people want to hear them, we look at it like, hey, whatever, that's great. We'll play them. That's a gift.”
The key to L.A. Guns' longevity has been having the right attitude. Whereas many of Riley's musician friends in L.A. sit around waiting for the next arena tour to land in their lap, the Guns don't turn up their noses at headlining gigs in smaller clubs.
“Bands die when they get on a big tour ... and then they have to come back and go out and do clubs. There are a lot of bands that won't do that,” Riley said. “We never really cared. We just wanted to play and we have no problem bouncing from a Whitesnake show to a club show on our own and then back to a Scorpions show and then back to a club on our own.
“You've got to dig in and you've got to want to play. You can't believe your own bulls---,” he said. “Phil and myself, we always just wanted to be working musicians where we go out and play a full set of our own original material, and that's what we do. If it's in a club, who cares? And if it's with Whitesnake or Cinderella in a big arena, that's great too. As long as we're playing, we're cool.”
Riley — who cites Led Zeppelin, Cream and Black Sabbath as influences — acknowledged that the '90s were a “dark period” for bands like L.A. Guns, though he noted it came at the end of L.A.'s “10-year reign” as the hottest music scene in America. (“I don't think any one city has had that kind of dominance,” he said.) And over the past 10 years, hair metal (aka “glam metal” or “pop metal”) has seen a resurgence, he said, especially among people who are discovering it for the first time.
“Things go in cycles. New scenes start and old scenes die out. It's just the way it goes,” Riley said. “But for our kind of music, there are a lot of young fans that are finding it and saying, hey, the '80s weren't just a lot of pop and glam. It was a lot of great, fun music, too.”
Tonight's L.A. Guns show in Bend is a production of JMR Entertainment, a new concert promoter in Central Oregon founded by Jeannine Rice of Madras.
Rice, 51, is a lifelong music fan who worked at Mountain View Hospital in Madras for more than 20 years before leaving last year and starting JMR. Her inspiration, she said, came during a show in Bend last fall by Christian guitar wizard Phil Keaggy.
“I wanted to do something different. I got tired of (the medical field) and I loved music,” she said. “I saw Keaggy play and caught the fever. I said, ‘I want to do this.'”
Rice is a fan of all kinds of music (she half-jokingly says she was once the oldest person at a Green Day concert), but her heart really flips for the rock ‘n' roll of her youth.
“I want to bring classic rock back to Central Oregon. That's my goal,” she said. “I want it to be affordable for people, and I want them to experience what live music is all about.”
Rice is an unabashed lover of ‘80s “hair bands,” she said. Besides L.A. Guns, she has also booked Adler's Appetite, a hard-rock band featuring former Guns N' Roses drummer Steven Adler, for May 12 at the Domino Room. She is also working on more events for the summer.
In addition to promoting shows, JMR is managing a few local artists including young blues singer Kylan Johnson and rock bands StillFear and Shovelbelt. She calls the young generation “the next great thing,” and helping those artists is her way of looking forward while also looking back.
“I want do the music I grew up with, and I know a lot of the bands that are out there touring now, yeah they're old, but a lot of them sound just like they did (in the old days),” she said. “I want to keep that alive.
“There are a lot of things to do here, but this is the one thing that's missing,” she said. “And I believe that there are a lot of people out there who feel the way I do.”
For more info on JMR, visit www.google.com/profiles/JMRBendOregon or call 541-977-3982.
— Ben Salmon