Santiago y Los Gatos and Cliff B. Worsham release new albums

GETTING PERSONAL: Santiago y Los Gatos, left, and Cliff B. Worsham delve deeply into their histories on their latest releases. Santiago photo by Chuck St. Laurent; Worsham photo by Anna White

Ten years is a long time to wait between albums, but there’s a sense throughout Santiago y Los Gatos’ Washing Away Wetiko that the 10-song collection wouldn’t have been as rich without that amount of space.

Full of energy, thoughtful lyrics and ripping guitar solos, the sonically diverse record serves as a reflection of frontman Jeff Santiago’s past decade as an artist, son, father, husband — and operations manager at The Orange Peel.

“My influences come from everywhere. I’m a music fan and, obviously, I see live music all the time — all sorts of kinds,” Santiago says. “Whatever [style] I feel like I connect with … I just sort of explore and see what happens.”

Santiago describes the album as “deeply personal,” particularly in terms of confronting loss. The touching “Aura” is about the 2021 passing of his mother, Aura Santiago, and features cello from his neighbor Melissa Hyman, who performed a song at Aura’s memorial service with her husband and The Moon and You bandmate, Ryan Furstenberg. Six months after Aura’s death, Santiago’s brother Freddie unexpectedly died, resulting in the song “Brother.”

“We were heading into the studio already — we had some material ready to go. And the emotion of those losses pushed to the forefront,” Santiago says. “I felt like I needed to find a way to express myself. I was like, ‘I don’t know if these are going to be songs that I can have ready for the record or anything.’ And then they wound up being two of the first four songs we released [as singles]. It just became the priority.”

Fellow Washing Away Wetiko track “After Me” was inspired by a racially motivated incident a few years ago at The Orange Peel in which Santiago was accosted by an intoxicated patron who was being removed from the venue for inappropriate behavior. She responded by telling Santiago, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, to go “back to Mexico.”

“I’m like, ‘I don’t mind going there. I have no problem with that. However, I’m not from there. I’m from right here,’” he says. “And it became a big deal. After being removed from the venue, the woman came back with family, and they came back with pipes and stuff like that, so it got really intense.”

Asheville Police Department officers arrived on the scene and prevented things from escalating to physical violence. But the experience left a mark on Santiago, who was already hyperconscious of the rising xenophobic rhetoric aimed at Latinos and immigrants in general.

“The whole idea that there’s a certain checklist that some people want to impose on others as to what it means to be an American, whether that’s speaking the language, education, job, paying my taxes — I’m like, ‘I checked them all off the list. It still doesn’t matter. You made it obvious to me,’” he says.

“It matters to me because I’m part of a community, so I want to be doing the right thing by my community,” he continues. “But it doesn’t matter to that person who gave me the checklist in the first place.”

“Gaslight” takes a more general look at how entrenched people get in what Santiago calls an “it’s gotta be completely my way [and] my philosophy or you’re dead to me” mindset and how, when people are called out for their toxic behavior, it’s accompanied by the titular form of lying and redirected guilt.

But Washing Away Wetiko isn’t all about grief and suffering. “No Way” celebrates his relationship with his wife, Tiffany, and “Sunrise Drive” takes its name from the street where he and his family once lived.

“I kind of took the idea of it being a place but also something you would do to clear out your mind and soul search when you’re looking for something or looking to reconnect in your relationship,” he says.

“No Way” also serves as a celebration of Santiago’s heritage. The track features bass guitar from Alex Bendaña, a member of the Grammy-winning Latin group La Santa Cecilia, and a lively Latin-inspired flute performance from Marcus James Henderson of the Marshall Tucker Band. The album’s standout song also gets an encore version in Spanish to close out the collection under its translated title, “Eres Tú.”

Encouraging this expression was producer David Elliot Johnson, a Miami native and third-generation drummer who played early in his career with Tito Puente. Santiago says he and his bandmates look forward to further exploring that side of their sound. And if it takes another decade for another album to materialize, so be it.

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Ghost stories

Many Asheville-area music fans know Cliff B. Worsham as MOTHER HOOD, vocalist and producer for electronic group RBTS WIN and a member of the hip-hop duo Spaceman Jones & The Motherships. Meanwhile, those who followed the post-hardcore scene in the early-mid 2000s will recall his tenure as lead vocalist and keyboardist in Secret Lives! Of The Freemasons.

But long before Worsham screamed into a mic or picked up an MPC and crafted one of his signature dark-tinged beats, he was steeped in other musical traditions.

“Guitar was the first instrument that I touched,” says Worsham, whose new folk album, The Cove Ghost, was released March 29. “It was one that was always around. My brother’s really good at guitar, and my grandfather and uncle and grandmother — it was a heavy influence in my life and guitar was expected of me, I guess.”

As a youth growing up in Candler’s Hominy Valley community, the first instrument Worsham chose to play was bass guitar, which gave him a portal into his budding hard-rock interests. But he also kept up his acoustic guitar skills to join in with the bluegrass, gospel and folk performances surrounding him.

However, Worsham’s musical interests continued to deviate from those roots and he set the guitar aside, pretty much only picking it back up to add layers to RBTS WIN tracks — largely invisible additions since the instrument never appears in their live shows. Yet right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he’d bought a new acoustic guitar. And with his fellow performers all isolating until restrictions for gathering were scaled back, he had plenty of time at home to reunite with his first instrument.

“It was kind of cool — I’d put it down for so long that it was new again,” Worsham says. “Realistically, I still knew how to play but I really took a child’s perspective on it and just started from zero. I learned my chords all over again and started working my scales — then I started to try to work on my fingerpicking and stuff like that.”

Like many creatives during that time of uncertainty and disconnect, the already prolific Worsham went into overdrive, working on new and established collaborative projects and exploring his renewed interest in folk music. Struck by the charged state of the world and the numerous socioeconomic impacts of overdevelopment in the Asheville area, he reflected on his past and wrote about his childhood in Candler.

“Every song on [The Cove Ghost] is like a journal entry. That stuff wasn’t ever supposed to really be heard — it was a cathartic thing to do,” Worsham says. “I felt like I was going crazy, like a lot of people did during that time.“

Emotions were particularly high while he was writing “The Kitchen,” a poignant, imagery-rich reflection on hardscrabble country living and the losses of beloved people and places. Worsham says he cried writing it and that its finished version — augmented by beautiful fingerpicking — regularly brings audiences to tears when he plays it live.

But not every song came so naturally. Similar to a stand-up comic testing out new material, Worsham used regional open mic nights to help him figure out if his songs were connecting with listeners. If they weren’t resonating, he’d return home and retool entire verses, then try them out again until they achieved the desired effect.

The dedication paid off and is connecting him with a wider community than he expected. While Worsham notes that the free-form, abstract nature of RBTS WIN has proved elusive to a lot of listeners, he says his singer-songwriter output is attracting listeners in their teens up through their 80s.

“I think with this stuff, a lot more people can connect with it a little easier,” Worsham says. “They don’t have to have an ear for obscure music to ingest it. To the core, it’s really just simple folk songs.”

The Cove Ghost also serves as somewhat of a subconscious atonement for not cherishing folk, bluegrass and gospel traditions the way his elders hoped.

“It’s funny — I wish I could go back to those times with those people and really appreciate it for what it was. But I didn’t appreciate it at all,” he says. “If you do enough of the work on yourself, you can see through all the haze of what may have been holding you back from seeing the beauty the whole time. So, that’s where I’m at with it now: It’s like I cleared the webs from my mind.”

To learn more, visit


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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