Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana plays at the Watsonville High football field in a support concert for victims of the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989.
(Via YouTube)
The Here & Now

Recovery flashback: Recalling the day Watsonville rocked with joy and relief

THE HERE & NOW: The upcoming ‘Love You Madly’ benefit virtual event connects back to a landmark benefit concert during another time of crisis in Santa Cruz County.

The greatest outdoor live musical performance in Santa Cruz County history?

Considering all the mind-blowing shows from 25 years of the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, KPIG festivals at the Fairgrounds, free concerts at the Beach Boardwalk and the Capitola Esplanade, and who knows what all, there are way too many to choose from to be definitive.

But I have a pretty compelling nominee:

Sunday afternoon, Nov. 26, 1989, Watsonville High School. Santana. Los Lobos. Tickets for $5.

That show has been on my mind this week largely because of a very different kind of show, a big virtual benefit event titled “Love You Madly,” to be streamed Dec. 5. “Madly” promises to be an amazing and diverse offering of intimate performances in a format that, months deep into a pandemic, we’ve all become quite familiar with, in a time when crowded live concerts are beginning to fade into long-term memory.

Presented by Schooner Realty

Living the California dream has always meant being in touch with nature. With spectacular ocean views from Santa Cruz to...

But “Love You Madly” has one thread in common with that long-ago show in Watsonville. Two things, actually.

The first is Los Lobos, one of the greatest California rock bands of all time, who slayed the crowds back in ’89, and are now contributing a performance to “Madly,” 31 glorious, boundary-breaking years later.

The other thing? “Love You Madly” is all about helping. The show — Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, Sammy Hagar, Boz Scaggs, and a battalion of other amazing performers — is a fundraiser to help those displaced by the CZU Lightning Complex fires in August in Bonny Doon and the San Lorenzo Valley.

That memorable show in ’89 was also all about helping local people displaced by a natural disaster. Then it was the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which brought death and destruction all across the Bay Area. But, on either side of the epicenter in mid county, the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville were particularly devastated.

Up stepped legendary rock promoter and deal maker Bill Graham, never one to do things halfway. Graham, just two years before his untimely death in a helicopter accident, was at the top of his game, and he decided to raise money for earthquake victims with three separate star-studded concerts, televised live, all on the same day — at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, the Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland, and the football field home of the Watsonville High Wildcatz.

Graham, of course, had done business countless times at the first two venues. But Watsonville? Not so much.

Eddie Scher, who was managing events at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium at the time, was Graham’s connection to Watsonville. He approached the Watsonville City Council about the idea. “They were pretty taken aback, as I can remember,” said Scher.

But for Los Lobos, Watsonville made all kind of sense. By ’89, the band had already been together well over a decade, but they finally attained star status in 1987 with their breakout album “By the Light of the Moon” and with the soundtrack for the hit movie “La Bamba,” directed by Luis Valdez from neighboring San Juan Bautista.

“La Bamba,” you’ll remember, was a biopic of the famed Chicano rock singer and guitarist Ritchie Valens who died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and whose surviving family members had, after his death, settled in ... Watsonville.

Since their inception, Los Lobos was all about folding in Mexican musical traditions into mainstream rock idioms to create a thrilling new hybrid, and if they had a lodestar to show them the way down that particular alley, it was Carlos Santana.

Now here they were together, the iconic rock superstar guitarist and the rising stars from East L.A. playing on a makeshift stage in a town with a proud and sizable Latino population. And in the audience was the mother and siblings of the pioneer they all revered.

But a proud day for Watsonville was also a much needed day of release for everybody in Santa Cruz County.

“What it felt like was being stuck in a well,” remembered Noel Murphy who hitchhiked to the show from Santa Cruz. “All the work was gone. People couldn’t go back to their houses. And here you had this ray of light through the whole thing that allowed us to pretend the earthquake never happened.”

“People were really happy,” said Dan Young, whose popular ska band Square Roots opened the show. “It was a beautifully sunny day. There were just smiles everywhere.”

Graham himself decided to make the scene in Watsonville, even holding Young’s young daughter in his arms while he made announcements between sets.

“Everybody was in great spirits and it was a really good vibe,” said Scher, who provided security, ticketing, and ushers for the show. “Everyone had been walking around in a daze for weeks. We needed that.”

As for the music, Monterey journalist Joe Livernois in his account of that day said that Los Lobos “nearly set off Loma Prieta, the Sequel.”

Between the three concerts, Graham raised more than $2 million for Santa Cruz County that day, and created a memory that still glows three decades later.

The Los Lobos set, in fact, still exists as a beautiful little artifact on YouTube, showing a band at the top of their powers playing for enraptured crowds, having forgotten their troubles just for a little while. And there’s not a face mask in sight.

“Love You Madly,” a streaming event to raise money for Santa Cruz County fire relief, will take place Saturday Dec. 5 at 7 p.m., featuring Bonnie Raitt & Boz Scaggs, Los Lobos, Sammy Hagar, Steve Earle and many others. The event will be streamed on nugs.tv.