Veteran California singer-songwriter reconciles with his brother Phil to pay tribute to the music that led them both to their Blasters past.
Born in Downey, California, in the 1950s, Dave Alvin and his brother Phil were perfectly placed in geography and time to have front row seats as the blues, rockabilly and country formed a drunken, dirty backwoods threesome and begat rock and roll.
Growing up, the brothers listened to Big Bill Broonzy, Chet Atkins, Big Joe Turner and other masters. They later took those moments with them when they formed renowned roots band the Blasters, rubbing shoulders with the emerging Los Angeles punk scene featuring X and Black Flag in the early 1980s.
Like The Kinks’ Ray and Dave Davies, the brothers’ acrimony was legendary. Dave left the band to go solo while Phil continued on with them in different configurations and intervals over the next decades while also pursuing solo work. In the meantime, Dave briefly joined X, and the Knitters, before continuing on with his solo career, enjoying different forms of success. Dwight Yoakam recorded his song Long White Cadillac in 1989. He has produced many albums, including ones for the Derailers and for Tom Russell, and has been a session musician for Rambling’ Jack Elliot, among others.
After Phil had a near-death experience in Spain, the two brothers reunited to put out Common Ground, their 2014 album of Big Bill Broonzy covers. They followed it up with Lost Time, an album of beloved covers from their youth, in 2015. They will appear together with their band The Guilty Ones on Saturday and Sunday of the Calgary Folk Music Festival.
Before heading up north, Dave spoke with theYYSCENE.
Q: I was surprized when I looked it up and found out when you last played the folk fest — it was 2006!
A: Well, you can shut me up. Wow! It seems to me maybe six years ago at the most. That does not seem right, but I think that is right. That’s pretty wild, wow. I remember that show very well. I was still a bit of a drinker in those days and I so remember having a hangover the next day when I saw Kris Kristofferson, and when he did Sunday Morning Coming Down I thought, “I can relate to that.” I remember having a nice conversation with Dar Williams, who approached me after the show, and she and I had a long conversation about songwriting.
Q: Why did you and Phil choose Big Bill Broonzy as the artist to cover on your first album together after you’d been on separate musical paths for years?
A: He was one of the catalysts when we were kids that set us on the road that we’ve traveled. Unlike some blues performers — you know, if you are going to do someone like Lightnin’ Hopkins, you would have to sound like Lightnin’ Hopkins, because his art was so personalized. So if you are going to do a tribute to Lightnin’ Hopkins, you gotta make it to sound like Lightnin’ Hopkins. That can be fun for a song or so, but there’s no reason for a whole album: Here’s the Alvin Brothers trying to sound like Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Whereas with Big Bill, he certainly had a style of playing guitar that was uniquely his own, but he was a songwriter. The songs were strong enough that if you wanted to you could remove them from the Big Bill Broonzy quote-unquote sound and interpret them any way you wanted. Which is kind of what we did on the record. There are a couple that are close to sounding like Big Bill, there are others that don’t, but they’re still his songs.
It’s like, if you are doing a tribute to Bob Dylan, I would hope you try not to sound like Bob Dylan, but try to sound like yourself, and the same kind of rule applies to Big Bill Broonzy.
Q: I saw Dylan on Sunday. Even him doing his own stuff from the past; think how boring it could be to play the same songs for 50 years. He re-wrote himself (again) and in some ways his songs, yet kept it true to the heart of the songs.
A: It’s always debatable, because I can go either way on that. I am sort of blessed because I don’t get sick of playing my own songs, and the reason, I tell people, is I still can’t believe I wrote ’em. It’s kinda like, “Really? I wrote that! Wow, I’m good!”
I can always find something new inside the song, and in my mind, no matter where I am in the world, I can always go to where I was when I wrote the song — what I was thinking, what I was going through.
In Bob’s situation, it’s a little different. If you ever listen to weird outtakes, like the recordings of Like a Rolling Stone or outtakes from Positively 4th Street, his version is different each time. He is not a by-the-note kind of guy. I think that for him, part of it is a natural contrariness, in that he kind of wants to mess with the audience a little bit, lovingly, but still mess with them.
His vocal styles have changed over the years and I think that his phrasing — it might be one of the things that attracts him to the standards — his phrasing is excellent. He knows how to phrase a damn song. That’s true whether it’s a Bob Dylan song from 1966 or a Burke-Van Heusen song from 1960. He knows how to phrase a lyric; he knows how to wring the emotions out of a lyric.
Because he’s not, let’s say, Richard Thompson on guitar — his instrumental genius is the way he sings and the way he phrases his lines. And I think when he goes onstage that’s the challenge for him — that’s what he’s looking forward to. “I don’t know where I am in the world, but I am going to sing these songs, and I am going to phrase them differently.”
Q: A great thing about seeing Dylan, and many others, still going in their 70s, is that we have almost stopped hearing about how rock and roll or music is a young person’s game. In the 1950s and ’60s, people thought an artist’s career would be done in six months or a few years, and then it would be on to the next thing. We don’t hear stuff like that anymore.
A: I imagine if you talked to a 17-year-old they might think that way, but part of it is that the audiences have gotten older and they don’t want to see their heroes stop, because that might mean something heavy. The people that Phil and I admired as a kid played until they died. That’s what (Russian pianist) Vladimir Horowitz did.
And it changes. You’re not the same artist at 60 as you were at 24 — you can summon that 24-year-old, but you have to stay where you are now, at some point. I don’t begrudge guys for trying to stay 24. It’s something I can summon, I can pull out the songs and say, “OK, we’re all 24 again.” And I am certain Dylan does the same thing.
When you hear a song for the first time, the ones that usually really resonate with you are the ones that you heard on your parents’ car radio when you were eight-years-old or the ones that you heard during your first big make-out session with a girl or guy, or when you got your heart broken.
Like a Rolling Stone is going to resonate with an audience. If he wrote his greatest song on his next album, it’s not going to resonate the same way because they’ve lived with it for 53 years.
Q: Speaking of things that resonate and the past, do you get a lot of people telling you that you should do a reunion with the Blasters?
A: Yes. What I say is the Blasters are a band in and of themselves. They have a guitar player; they don’t need me. And there’s a certain thing to having those four or five guys together on stage that’s certainly magical, but usually it’s unannounced in a bar. I’ll just drop in and pick up a guitar. And that’s good enough for me.
The reason I used Gene Taylor, the piano player from the Blasters, who plays on the two albums I did with my brother, is he is one the world’s best boogie-woogie blues piano players. But if I was to do the Blasters, if made an album with the Blasters, that means they’re Blasters records, and I want to make Dave and Phil Alvin records. Even the guys in the Blasters — we all grew up together — we were the Alvin Brothers before we were the Blaster Brothers. Also, I’ve got a pretty amazing damn band.
Q: What’s changed between the way it was when you used to play with Phil and the way it is playing with him now?
A: We don’t fight. I think in the past four years we’ve had two minor disagreements. One was I was not playing a note that my brother wanted to hear. It was an F-sharp, and I was like, “No, you’re out of your mind.” And, it turns out he was right, Goddamn it. So what could I do?
When we first did the Big Bill record my brother was still relatively frightened over his near death experience in Spain, so the Big Bill Broonzy record, with the exception of the F-sharp note, was easy as hell. It would have taken the Blasters a couple of years to do that record — I’m exaggerating. We just don’t fight like we used to — there is a mutual respect.
I have to grudgingly admit that some of the things we used to fight about when we were in the band, I’ve come around to his way of seeing things, you know, “You were right about that.” But don’t tell him that. And vice versa, I think my brother has come around to seeing certain things my way. We meet about halfway.
Q: Are you able to speak about your brother’s near death experience?
A: It’s really complicated, but long story short: he was on stage in Valencia, Spain, with his band, and he was having trouble breathing, so when the show was over, they rushed him to a hospital where he proceeded to die.
And I was in California, and I got a phone call saying, “Your brother’s dead.” He was brain dead for at least 10 minutes, and we’re not sure how long, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes he was brain dead, and then they revived him. A Spanish doctor, Mariella Anaya Sifuentes, managed get on top of my brother and do what I’ve always wanted to do which is beat the living shit out of him. And she got his heart to start again. It’s a long story, but she brought him back to life.
And so in that long period while she is pounding on his chest to get everything moving, I am sitting in California thinking my brother’s dead and kind of going over, “Gee, what did I screw up here?” And I realized we didn’t ever do any records for the little 13-year-old boys in us. That’s kind of around our age when we discovered Big Bill Broonzy and Big Joe Turner and people like that. (I’m thinking) if I had it to do it all over again, I would so some records of certain material just for ourselves. And he pulled out of it, and as soon as he was ready, we went in the studio.
Q: How did you choose the tracks on you last album, 2015’s Lost Time?
A: We knew we wanted to do some Big Joe Turner songs. He was our friend and mentor and he taught my brother how to sing. He is a little bit like Lightnin’ Hopkins in that to do Big Joe you kinda have to do Big Joe.
But he’s also a little like Big Bill in that he had a long career and he didn’t necessarily change his style, but the musicians around him changed, so he went from in his early days doing Kansas City jazz to ’50s rock and roll rhythm and blues to ’60s west coast blues. So if we’re going to do some Big Joe we can cover all the styles of Big Joe. The rest are songs we’ve always loved since we were kids.
We were trying to be aware that there are so many songs in the blues tradition that have been done too many times that the world didn’t need another version, so we tried to stay away from those.
Q: Are you writing new songs at this time?
A: I am always writing and throwing things away. I am the harshest critic of my own songs that you’ve ever met.
Q: What’s shifted since you were first playing in the 1970s and early ’80s?
A: Well, the actual being onstage hasn’t changed. You’re still immortal onstage. That’s the addiction. Back to Bob Dylan, I don’t know if he is still touring because he’s got debts to pay, but I imagine it’s because he gets the same high I get.
When you’re onstage and everything’s clicking, there is no time. You’re not old, you’re not young. You exist in this other realm. It’s like a runner’s high. You’re living totally in a moment. The past is the present and the future is the present. It’s a pretty ethereal state. I’ve talked to other people about this, and lots know what I’m talking about.
Other people are punching a time clock. You know, 20 more minutes. For me, it’s if I’m onstage, all my dead friends are alive, my family, my mother and father are alive, my heroes, you know, Big Joe Turner is alive. And now were done, OK, now back to reality.
So being onstage hasn’t changed at all, but a lot of what’s around being onstage has. The music industry has changed drastically for better or for worse.
The main thing I’ve noticed, we did a show about four or five years ago, and the other act on the bill was these young guys, about eight of them. We shared this big dressing room. So, they went up on stage and did their thing, and I went and we played our set, and I go to go back to the room and I think the room will be filled with smoke, alcohol, drugs, and there will be people flying through the air because they’re 22-years-old. And I think, “Oh, I gotta field that.”
And I get up to the room and it’s dead silent. And they’re all sitting, each on their own computers, doing whatever they’re doing. Jesus Christ guys, you’re 22-years-old, don’t you know you’re supposed to have fun?
The motels are either swanky or they’re crap holes, the food at truck stops is still terrible, but the biggest change is 22-year-old guys are not out making idiots of themselves. Gee, I am glad I was 22 when I was 22!
Q: You mentioned you were drinking less?
A: I will still enjoy a beverage, but I don’t enjoy them in bulk. I’ll have a beer before I go onstage because it kind of loosens up the brain. It makes me less shy and inhibited because I am shy and inhibited unless demon rum is involved. And I’ll have a beer after I’m done, but that’s about it. Alcohol used to be a religion and now I nod at it.
Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin + the Guilty Ones play Saturday, July 29 and Sunday, July 30 at the Calgary Folk Music Festival on Prince’s Island. For tickets, call 403-233-0904 or visit the festival’s website.
Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who covers her two passions, music and horses. She has written in the Calgary Herald, FFWD Weekly, Swerve, Western Horsemen, Western Horse Review, Horses All and other publications, for over 25 years.