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It's half past eight and the club's weekly acoustic showcase has started unusually early, smack in the void between happy hour and late night.
While most of the assembled patrons are fixed to TV screens flashing returns from the evening's college basketball games, on stage Gin Blossoms songwriter/guitarist Jesse Valenzuela is playing as if all eyes are on him. Bent over a sunburst Gibson acoustic, he colors a midtempo country tune with a delicate series of licks -- carving subtle filigrees with a network of bends and slides.
Valenzuela moves and plays with an almost feminine languor, the fringes of his crisply parted black hair falling down over the fret board. He'll play for an hour before packing his gear and quickly shuffling down the street to another bar to perform "If Not for You" as part of a birthday tribute to the late George Harrison.
Breezing through a catalogue of old chestnuts and rarely heard originals, Valenzuela launches into a winding ballad titled "Babyface." Three minutes of heart-fluttering ennui end with a coda of candyfloss vocals and liquid guitar runs.
As a smattering of fans make requests, Valenzuela scolds them like a disapproving parent.
"You kids. You always want the up-tempo numbers," he jokes, before launching into the familiar descending chords of "'Til I Hear It From You." It's odd hearing the number -- a Top 10 smash and one of the most played records of the '90s -- in such a drab setting. While the song's refrain once blared from FM radios nationwide, it currently echoes in a half-empty bar amid the din and clatter of bottles and glasses. Jesse Valenzuela is right back where he started -- in a sense, at least.
It'd be a joke to pretend that the guitarist is the same scuffling wide-eyed rocker he was when the Blossoms prowled this very Mill Avenue stage nearly 15 years ago.
Nearly 40, he's a husband, a father and a well-established artist. With a wall of platinum records, a handful of hit singles and an address book filled with industry contacts, he doesn't need to slog through a decidedly unglamorous weekday set, one that won't even cover the cost of gas money. Yet he's decided to return to the places his old band used to haunt -- maybe to repay his dues, maybe to sharpen his craft.
Whatever the reasons for his return, this time Valenzuela is very much on his own -- and poised on the brink of a new career.
The following morning finds a bleary-eyed Valenzuela sunk into a favorite booth at Harlow's Cafe. Sipping a cup of coffee, he leafs through a script for a new Billy Dee Williams movie for which he's been asked to write a song.
Among the pivotal figures of Valley music's old guard, Valenzuela has long been its most enigmatic personality. The lone teetotaler in a notoriously drunken band, Valenzuela managed to stay out of the fray after the Blossoms' controversial firing of group leader Doug Hopkins and the recriminations that followed in the wake of his 1993 suicide. Although maintaining an extremely low public profile since the Blossoms' breakup, Valenzuela has quietly remained a busy and well-connected figure in the music industry.
After years of false starts and delays, this week -- coincidentally, a decade after the Blossoms completed work on their major-label debut -- Valenzuela bows with his first solo effort, Tunes Young People Will Enjoy.
"When asked, I want the response to the record to be, 'Oh, I really enjoyed it,'" he jokes of the album's title.
Armed with a bone-dry sense of humor and a withering wit, Valenzuela seems to enjoy a bit of good-natured needling directed at his inquisitor. Despite his often glib responses, the singer admits it was a long and circuitous route to reach this point in his career.
A Phoenix native, Valenzuela's musical life began as a teen playing Spanish mass at St. Daniel's church in Scottsdale. By the time he graduated high school, Valenzuela was bumping around in a variety of country and cover bands before finding himself in the midst of the burgeoning early '80s East Valley rock circuit. After stints in Tempe pop progenitors the Photos and as a happy hour acoustic act, Valenzuela eventually signed on with the Blossoms, riding shotgun during their bumpy eight-year journey to the peaks of pop stardom.
The group's much-publicized breakup in early 1997 spawned two bands, singer Robin Wilson's Gas Giants and Valenzuela's Low Watts. The latter outfit seemed especially promising, teaming Valenzuela with fellow Blossoms guitarist Scott Johnson, local bass vet Daryl Icard (Feedbags, Major Lingo) and former Bob Dylan drummer Winston Watson.
The group quickly inked a deal with the Blossoms' old label, A&M Records, and began preproduction for a full-length album, demoing songs with producer Craig Schumacher in Tucson. Though the group managed a handful of high-profile shows -- including a two-night coming-out party at Nita's Hideaway -- the Low Watts' run was brief.
The absorption and eventual elimination of A&M by corporate monolith Universal Music signaled the end of the band's financial backing, and with it the end of the fledgling group.