There is an eclectic mish-mash of styles, genres, and cultures in Albuquerque. Sometimes all these elements meet within the same band. So it is with Saving Damsels, whose lead singer, JJ Otero, is Navajo and Hopi. According to JJ, he began singing as a youth in church back, on the rez. According to mom, Elsa Otero, he began as a toddler, singing along with the AM radio. Regardless, Saving Damsels — JJ, along with bassist Joe Pacheco (Isleta and Santo Domingo), guitarist Chuck Hawley, drummer Pax Garcia, and keyboardist Douglas Bellen — has become a fixture within the Albuquerque music scene.
Formed in 2007, Saving Damsels is Otero’s first band. “We started in the spring of 2007 when I called up a buddy of mine to see if he wanted to jam some songs on acoustics. He liked the jamming and soon after called up one of his buddies to play bass. All we needed then was a drummer. It took several auditions but we finally found a drummer that fit with us well.” The band’s repertoire runs the gamut between soul, ballads and country. Saving Damsels released their first album, Empty Rooms, in April 2010. Otero describes it as borrowing from the old styles, where “rez meets concrete ‘Burque wall’s edge.” However you describe it, it’s unquestionably popular with ABQ music fans.
One of the band’s most recognizable, and popular, songs is “Sweet Girl,” off their second album, Find My Way, released in April 2012. “As soon as I hit the first opening chords, I heard people start to clap. As I started singing the lyrics, I could hear two or three fans singing along with me word for word. I was floored and almost forgot the lyrics.” Ever displaying Native modesty and gratitude, Otero says “I’m 42 now and I always say that I’m not the best singer or guitar player but I put them together and make do. It was overwhelming and somewhat surreal to hear the cheers, whistles, and hand clapping” from the crowd at the New Mexico State Fair. Saving Damsels has already opened for such national recording stars as Rascal Flatts, and fellow Native rockers The Plateros, Keith Secola, Indigenous, and Gary Farmer & The Troublemakers. They have aspirations of sharing the stage with The Black Keys, Big-Head Todd & The Monsters and The Black Crowes. And, having already established a presence throughout the southwest, they have their sights set on a nation-wide tour, possibly even some tour dates in Europe and Asia. Perhaps that future will come sooner, than later — the band is currently long-listed in several categories for the 2012 Native American Music Awards, which will be given out November 30.
“My desire to sing led me to pick up a guitar when I was 17, so I could accompany myself,” recalls Otero. He credits AM radio, the country greats, and ’70s rock ‘n roll with influencing what he calls the band’s native soul rock: “Native referring to my heritage; soul referring to what music means to me; and rock referring to the predominant style of music.” Otero’s sound is mature, and Saving Damsels is one of the southwest’s busiest bands. JJ’s music tells the story of his life. “My music is inspired by the women I’ve loved, lost, and continue to look for. It is also inspired by the happenings in this world both politically and economically. And, then there are reflective songs recounting the times I spent many days and nights and tons of cash, lost relationships, and dignity to my addictions.” He cites “Chasing Demons,” off the band’s latest album as one of his personal favorites: “It talks about not-quite fitting into city life and longing to go home to the rez. Dealing with the ‘stuckness’ of city life and having no real gumption to leave it either. My battles with alcohol, gambling, and infidelity are clearly marked in my songs, yet I hope to be a living example of another human being who found hope and made some changes in his own life.”
Typical rock-star stuff, it might seem — a maturity gained from years of living the ragged life of, well, a rock star. But, for Otero, there’s more to the story. For instance, his relationship with his daughter, Kiley. “She is a smart, beautiful young lady and I’m daily thankful and working to be the best dad possible,” he says. “No matter what circumstance you’re in, there is always hope.” He is also devoted to his father, Chester Otero, who provides accompanying vocals on the track “Protected (Beauty All Around).” Thanks to Chester, the Otero household was constantly abuzz with music, and particularly singing; JJ recalls with fondness a father who might be belting out 49 songs one moment and a ’50s doo-wop classic the next.
Otero is well-known throughout the community for his promotional work with Rock The 9, an annual rock ‘n roll event takes place during the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow. The line-up has featured many established Native visionaries, including Keith Secola, Red Earth, The Plateros and The Jir Project Band. In the early days of Rock the 9, Otero, with good friend Rod Lacy, endeavored to see a music festival that focused on roots-based music. They assembled musicians from New Mexico and beyond. Rock The 9 has enjoyed much success and growth over its six-year history. And, it continues to showcase the very best Native talent coming through Albuquerque.
Recently, Otero has been exploring some other music ventures. He has been in discussions to record a solo album. “I’ve picked out the songs for the most part and will probably write a couple more. I’ve talked to a recording studio and lined up the bass player. It’s still fluid right now but I do hope to get some pre-production work in with the bassist I picked for the album.”
As for Otero’s work with Saving Damsels, you can see, hear, and buy it at the band’s website, savingdamsels.com.