War’s Lonnie Jordan promises smokin’ show in Las Vegas with Cheech & Chong

You’d think the band that has several tour dates with perennial potheads Cheech & Chong would be all about the ganja. After all, War’s hit song, “Low Rider,” was the opening track in the duo’s first movie, “Up in Smoke,” 36 years ago. And they have a bonus track on War’s first album release in 20 years, promoting their, ahem, progressive lifestyle. But War frontman Lonnie Jordan (and the band’s only original member – the other four living members broke off to form Lowrider Band) likens the partnership to something more akin to yin and yang, or as he put it, the angel vs. the devil who, for better or worse, sit on your shoulders whispering advice into your ears.

The smile on Jordan’s face comes over the phone as he speaks with Vegas.com and is, admittedly, infectious. He chuckles as he talks about War’s music, legal marijuana and newest album, but a more serious tone can be heard as he discusses the band’s message it delivers through War’s one-of-a-kind grooves and its hour-long jam session with legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix the day before he died in London at age 27 in 1970.

What was the inspiration for the album “Evolutionary”?
The fans. Because, what we’ve done was we excused ourselves from the recording industry for a while. We’ve always been a live jam band. We looove playing live in front of people, because that’s always been our shtick. And finally, we came to the conclusion that during all this music that’s been out, for all these many years, we said, wait a minute, what’s going on with live music? Why isn’t too many people playing live? Why is everything sequenced? Programmed? I mean, we can do a little bit of that and a little bit of this and make sure there is live music, but the majority of the albums are live. Only about a few cuts, I have to say three or four, may have some sequence, but then we’ve added our elements. War elements, which is our percussion, all the live stuff that we’ve always done, so we didn’t just make a sequence album. I don’t have anything against it, but I just like to know that young people can learn – and should learn – how to play an instrument and at least have that as a backup in the music world.

War's Lonnie Jordan with Cheech Marin (left) and Tommy Chong. Photo courtesy of Earl Gibson III

You guys are one of those bands where the younger generation has heard your music, like “Low Rider,” but they haven’t exactly heard of the band itself. How would you describe your music to the younger generation?
Universal street music. And ironically, we are on the Universal (label). We’ve always called our music universal street music. And thank God for the young Googlers, because now they can connect the band to the music and know that “Low Rider” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends” and “Cisco Kid,” and all the songs that they’ve heard sampled by other people or covered by other bands they like, the younger bands, they say, wait a minute, that’s their song! That’s War! So they will probably be the ones that will educate my peers, who didn’t connect to us back in the early days, who came out and saw us playing, and still didn’t connect.

With your album, can we expect the same fusion of sound as we heard 30, 40 years ago?
Oh, yeah. Although there are new faces – this is the new War for 2014 – but the concept for War has always been a movement. We’ve always been about movement. It’s like grooves and messages, and that’s the same thing that it was back then. One difference is that we’ve almost ran out of messages, because everything we talked about back then is happening now.

What do you mean?
There’s more wars than there was back then. But it’s what we were talking about. People slipping into darkness. I mean, the world is slipping into darkness. Everything we talked about then, we can’t talk about no more. So, what we’ve done was, now we’re lightening up on that, because we don’t want people to be sad. We don’t want to remind people of what’s going on. Now we’re just trying to keep people happy, in the moment of happiness, to forget about all that, and to get into more of our grooves and the message still being, why can’t we be friends? … That’s the whole thing: making people happy, because we’re starting to miss the beauty of our sunshine, the way the world was. So, these are the things that we’re now doing. We’ve always been like troubadours.

You speak of making people happy. One thing that makes some people happy is marijuana, and there’s the debate of legalizing it here in Nevada. You’re touring with Cheech & Chong, big proponents of legal pot, or just pot in general. Are you in favor of legalizing marijuana? Where do you stand on this issue?
I’m only in favor of people having a good time and enjoying entertainment. However you do it is your business, but I’m not going to inspire anyone to medicate themselves to listen to our music or anything like that. Just like in the ’70s, people were doing worse drugs than that and they came out to hear our music. But I didn’t inspire it and all I wanted to do was entertain. You come out to hear us play, whether you’re high, whether you’re drunk, whatever mode you’re in, just enjoy this form of art. We’re entertaining you and that’s it.

Cheech & Chong, that’s a whole ‘nother story, because people watch their movies and our music, “Low Rider,” that was the song that was used in their movie that was their first movie, and “Low Rider” played in a movie for the first time. So, we were both the first. So, this is just pretty much a reunion, but it has nothing to do with what they’re doing, whether I believe in it or not. Everyone is different and I don’t have anything against anyone’s beliefs. At all. We all have a right to our beliefs. If they incite marijuana smoking, then I incite clean living. So, it’s like opposite bands of the same era. The devil’s on the left shoulder and the angel’s on the right.

Are you guys going to be performing “Low Rider” at the show?
Of course. We are going to be performing as many songs as we can, but just keep in mind that the performance between us and Cheech & Chong is pretty much like a play, without the booklet in order to find out what’s the next episode. In this case, we just shock people to what’s going on next. You just have to figure out what’s going on. We pretty much do some of the show together. We do some of their songs and what they did on their albums and then they come with us and do some stuff with us. It’s like a together thing. Then we do our own show, then they do their own show. It’s pretty much back and forth. It’s like a play.

Will you be performing any of your new music?
Well that song I just sung to you, that L.A. Sunshine? That’s the song – and Cheech & Chong is on that single, by the way. But here’s the thing: I told you about that devil on the left shoulder and the angel on the right? Well the song is basically what I told you, it’s basically about the beautiful air, the beautiful sunshine, waking up in the morning. Of course, they turned it into something else, because the second verse says (sings) “check it out / here, cruisin’ down the boulevard with some homies in the low rider car yeah / they pulled me over and we rolled a fat one / we started shooting the breeze and drinkin’ Dom Perignon.” And then they (Cheech & Chong) come in and you know where they take that to.

On the album there’s two versions. The first cut off the album is “That L.A. Sunshine” without them, and then the last one, which is a bonus track, is with them. I can’t wait to hear what they do, if they remember what they did on the album (laughs). We plan to do a video also, and not only that, they’re planning on doing a movie and we’re going to be in the movie playing the music and acting as we can. It’ll be funny. We’ve been on tour, we know each other well enough now to know what not to do, because our band is pretty funny. My band is very funny. We’ve been there, done that.

Tell me about the new lineup.
These guy (are) the new family. I wish that the older guys woulda been like they are today (laughs). But hey, sometimes marriages just don’t work out. That’s why this band and me – the older band – we divorced. But one thing that we did have, we had beautiful children, and that was the music.

The Animal’s Eric Burdon was in the band. What was it like creating music with him?
Oh, I take my hat off to Eric. Eric helped us to loosen up. He took us out of that syndrome of being a cover band, because back before Eric Burdon, we were playing songs like all of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers. We were playing gospel music, just name it. We were playing everything, all genres of music. Calypso music and a lot of blues, but when Eric came in, Eric started improvising, and we just started improvising with him. We just followed him and we realized another side of us that we didn’t know existed, and that, basically, put a stamp on us. Somehow we started creating music and we just didn’t know we had it in us. It’s like Eric put a new toy in front of us and we just started playing with that toy and started getting happy. We were still young, but it made us happy. We started creating jams and then writing songs to that. It all started with “Spill the Wine.”

But we started performing live shows before we started writing anything. Eric got with us in the latter part of ’68. We’d done a lot of performances way before we recorded any music. Just to get more familiar with Eric, and him familiar with us, and Eric coming from Newcastle (upon Tyne, England), a mining coal city, was basically like where we all came from, from Compton, Long Beach, Watts, San Pedro. So, we had something in common with one another and that was the blues. And he loved the blues, because he came from a blues town, like we did. That’s how we  started, and then we started going from there with all sorts of other genres of music. That’s what he loved about us, because we were able to play all genres of music.

The blues was a major part of your music.
You know, the last time I actually played a long set of one blues song, and that was when Jimi Hendrix jammed with us. Eric and Jimi were very good friends. Hendrix came and jammed with us, because we all pretty much ran into each other or passed each other before that. Jimi used to back up a lot of different artists, like we did. So we played some of the same circuits. … Hendrix came to Ronnie Scott’s (Jazz Club) in England, where we were playing, and he came and jammed with us, and we did the Memphis Slim song, “Mother Earth,” and he came the night before he jammed with us, he came with his guitar. No gimmicks, just a plain little amplifier and his guitar, and we all jammed that “Mother Earth” for an hour. Everyone took a solo and it’s just ironic, here we are, playing Memphis Slim’s “Mother Earth,” and then he goes back to his flat, and that was early Thursday morning, and we get this call that he was suffocating, from his girlfriend, and she didn’t know what to do, and she was panicking. If she was a nurse, or if she had known what to do, or if she was older, she would probably revive him, because all he was doing was suffocating on his vomit. That’s what he was doing, so he could have been saved. But hey, what can I say. No one’s mad at her. She was just panicking. She didn’t know what to do. And then she had drugs on her too. She didn’t want to get busted and her parents, you know. It was all those scenarios, so it was just that ironic, here we are playing “Mother Earth” Thursday morning, he goes back, and in a way, he goes to Mother Earth. It was pretty scary for me, being young.

War performs with Cheech & Chong at 9 p.m. May 16 at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. Tickets start at $39.50.

Opening scene from “Up in Smoke” set to War’s “Low Rider:”

That time Eric Burdon performed with War. Get ready to rock: