Of all the hilariously dated, cringe- inducing video clips that older Twin Cities groups don't want you to see on YouTube, the best might be Westside Band's winning appearance on TV's "Star Search" in 1986.
You'll hear Ed McMahon's stiff introduction, citing the band's "strong Latino influence." You'll dig the MC Hammer pants and the blatant mimicking of the Time. You'll especially love the part midway through the song "The Sweep," when the band breaks into a hopelessly hokey, synchronized dance routine -- with matching brooms.
Once you're done gawking and giggling, though, consider this seriously impressive postscript: Not only has Westside lived up to its longtime slogan ("The Westside party don't stop") and hung around to celebrate its 30th anniversary this weekend (no brooms, gold lamé or Jheri curl allowed), but it still packs in fans on a regular basis.
About 400 of them turned out for the band's monthly Minnesota Music Café gig two weekends ago in St. Paul. Most but not all of the attendees were old enough to have seen Westside back when it haunted the nearby, long-gone Payne Reliever nightclub in the '80s. Other than that, though, it was an unusually diverse crowd, race- and gender-wise.
Working his way through the club before the show -- mingling with the audience is a Westside staple -- percussionist Dan Rea said the group's audience has never really wavered.
"For a while, we had a little trouble getting shows because we attracted too many women," he admitted.
Wait. Why was that a problem?
"The ladies all came to dance, and club owners didn't like that," Rea explained. "They weren't drinking enough."
At the helm of Westside Band since its inception in 1981, drummer Junior Trejo has maintained a personal no-drinking policy and other rigid parameters that he says has kept the group (and perhaps himself) alive. Not only do Westside members have to learn 350-some songs, but they also must learn dance routines and other stage shtick that sets them apart from other Twin Cities club acts.
Said keyboardist and saxophonist Chico Smith, a 20-year vet, "It's a six-days-a-week job. Junior believes in providing entertainment, not just good music, and he works us hard to deliver that."
Joy and pain
Trejo's drill-sergeant reputation might help explain how an estimated 120 musicians have gone through Westside's ranks over three decades. Some of them -- really just a smidgen, given that incredible number -- might show up for the band's 30th anniversary concert Friday at Robert's in Mounds View. The show is doubling as the local debut of Westside's new Earth, Wind & Fire tribute act, which Trejo is hard at work bringing out onto the casino circuit.
"Being in this band is a little like being in the Army," Trejo, 58, admitted. "Over the years, I just found that the more effort you put in, the smoother things run in the end."
Some of Westside's best-known members, however, left for good reasons. Dave Barry went on to play guitar with Janet Jackson and Cher. Keyboardist Greg Cauthen became a producer and co-wrote Aaron Hall's "I Miss You," a No. 2 R&B hit in 1994. Longtime lead singer Tony Green came and went several times and finally quit for good last year with health problems. And then there's the sad story of Trejo's brother, Ricky, who died of AIDS in 1996.
The Trejos started Westside with the idea of it being a multicultural representation of their neighborhood, St. Paul's West Side. Said Junior, "We grew up friends with blacks, Indians, whites and obviously Mexicans. We really didn't know about racism -- until we started playing in clubs."
Their "Star Search" stint only lasted two weeks. Trejo thinks they might have lost the second week only because another Twin Cities group, Limited Warranty, had taken top honors the year before. They flirted with record deals but never signed a contract, and much of their success after that came touring the East Coast.
Before Ricky's death, when he became too sick to tour, he and Junior retooled the band to stick mostly to local bars (and thus mostly play covers). They also opened a Mexican restaurant on St. Paul's West Side, Señor Toots, fashioned after the one their parents ran when they were kids, Carioca.
But Señor Toots burned down around the time Ricky passed away. Trejo, whose longtime girlfriend had died a few years earlier, retreated to Casper, Wyo., in the late-'90s and took the band with him.
Thus, it's not just a throwaway statement when he says, "I feel blessed to be able to wake up every day and still do what I love to do, play music."
He thinks today's Westside lineup is as strong as any. The new lead singer, Polo -- a 29-year-old truck driver from Houston -- adds a youthful face, while the other six guys (all in their 50s) have the musical experience to play just about anything. They kicked off their set two weeks ago with Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and Paul Simon's "Late in the Evening," and then weaved between everything from Al Green and Wilson Pickett staples to the Doobie Brothers' "Listen to the Music, and Maze's "Joy and Pain" to Next's "Too Close." The dance floor never got more than a quarter empty.
"Probably one of the reasons we're still in business is we do so many different styles of music," Trejo guessed. "But that was the plan from the start, because that's what I liked myself: a little bit of everything."
As for that "Star Search" clip, Trejo laughed about it: "We owned stock in Aqua Net at the time. But we sold it a long time ago."
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