I once wrote that if anyone ever carved a songwriters’ Mt Rushmore, Dave Alvin should be hewn from the rock. I got to pondering that idea again last night as I sat, and occasionally danced, at The Cedar. Alvin, along with long time running mate and Guilty Ones guitarist Chris Miller reprised the album King of California. It was the opening night of a tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary of an American classic.
What I came up with is maybe we should just have a Dave Alvin mountain all by itself. The four faces could be the different musical faces he has presented to the public. If Alvin is anything, he’s a chameleon. The man has been moved by so many that came before him. He effortlessly slides between genres and defies categorization.
He’s probably best known for founding The Blasters with big brother Phil; the most powerful Rockabilly band on the planet. The band burst onto the scene in the early 80’s. In order to move their incendiary live act to a record deal, the band turned to him for original music. As Blasters’ fans know, he was up to the task. While he hasn’t played with that band in many years, his brother still fronts it and was in town two nights earlier. When Alvin mentioned he’d just learned Phil had just preceded him, a significant portion of the audience let him know they’d been in attendance. “He’s a good guy, that Phil! Did he dedicate a song to me?”
Some fans first came to Alvin a bit later when he stepped into Billy Zoom’s slot and joined forces with John Doe and Excene Cervenka in the seminal LA punk act X. There’s a side of him that can bring the noise. Wielding his signature Fender Strat like a Hendrix machine gun. Recently, he teamed again with Doe and hit the road with their punk super group The Flesh Eaters. Let me add that their Turf Club show earlier this year remains my show of the year to date. Despite a blizzard, the entire sold out crowd showed up and got their faces scorched. I remember the volume from the stage shaking my pant legs. When Alvin let loose, you had to lean into it.
Blues aficionados are quick to claim him. Alvin is a repository of country blues that dates back to the earliest recordings of the 1920’s. He’s a master of those early Texas stylings. As kids growing up in Downey CA, Dave and brother Phil, amassed a huge collection of vintage 78’s which opened a musical world opaque to most of their peers. They began sneaking into the iconic Ashgrove as young teens. They absorbed everything they could from the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt. “We were like a couple of bees constantly buzzing around their heads”, Alvin laughed.
But that fourth head, jutting out most prominently like Washington from that Black Hills granite, should be the one we heard last night. That rootsy, genre-bending monster of Americana. The guy who defies categorization. More than Rockabilly king pin, punk or blues titan, Dave Alvin is simply one of our greatest songwriters on top of being one hell of a musician.
King Of California was an important album. Not only for American music, in general, but for Dave Alvin individually. As he explained: “When I set out to do an acoustic album, people told me it was a mistake. When I decided to sing on the album, people told me it was a mistake.” Instead, what we got was a critically acclaimed classic. As memorable as albums like Lucinda William’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. It belongs in the Smithsonian for future generations to also venerate.
For Alvin it was a breakthrough. An album that proved to himself that those early songs he penned, particularly for The Blasters, were no fluke. It also proved that he was born to be a lead singer. That’s a bit hard to comprehend these days when one listens to his beautiful baritone voice. But think back to his childhood and that earliest family band. How would you feel about your abilities if your big brother was Phil Alvin? A friend of mine once described Phil as “Moses coming down from the Rockabilly mountain.” You don’t stand up to Phil Alvin. You stand back in awe.
King of California in many ways allowed Dave to step out from his brother’s shadow. It was the album that set a trajectory which would eclipse anything he’d managed to accomplish in The Blasters. It was the launch point for the roots enamored Alvin who followed that album with Blackjack David and Public Domain, mined from that same vein.
Alvin and Chris Miller parked themselves on a couple of chairs and presented the album in sequential order. It was a sublime experience and the audience clung to every note. I particularly enjoyed how as a duo (often a trio when they invited Cindy Wasserman of opener Dead Rock West to sing harmony vocals) they reinterpreted the original versions. Some of it was a result of a lot fewer strings than the recording. Much of it was simply the songs, and their writer’s interpretation of them, had grown up and evolved.
I’m a big believer in songwriters taking the time to tell us the backstory behind a particular song. How and where it was written. Or why they decided to cover it. In the hands of a droll and laconic raconteur like Alvin, it fills the night with smiles, laughter and often a bit of sadness. There is something incredibly powerful and intimate about an artist sitting in front of you unplugged, willing to share the personal stories which caused them to put pen to paper. “A writer once asked me if my songs were autobiographical. I said sure. If you aren’t too concerned with the truth.”
On two occasions, Alvin chuckled and explained songs saying that when he eventually wrote his memoir, the song would comprise an entire chapter. He promised to tell us the abridged version before, thankfully, weaving the entire tale. When he introduced the Tom Russell tune Blue Wing, he confessed that he never performed it live simply because it was so important to him. In the late 1980’s, Alvin found himself in a dark and isolated personal place. He heard that particular song and immediately decided he was leaving that place and heading somewhere brighter and more positive. The song saved his life. Five years later, he put his take on it onto King Of California. It fit perfectly. For him, it was a reminder of where he’d been and where he intended to go.
One of the hallmarks of a great song is that it resonates through time. It doesn’t become a snapshot of a time and place; rather it connects over and over again with different generations and groups of people. The protest songs of years ago often ring true today. Alvin teed up the Memphis Slim song Mother Earth by saying that he didn’t go in for political speeches or pushing his opinions. However, he wanted us to know that the words of that old song summed up where he stood about as well as could be imagined.
“Don’t care how great you are
Don’t care what you worth
When it all ends up you got to
Go back to mother earth”
Listening to that song summed up all the division in our country, as well as what he thought about a country of haves and have-nots. It hit me like a ton of bricks that before Bob Dylan wrote You Gotta Serve Somebody, he certainly did some listening to Memphis Slim.
There is no question that the success and tone of any great album is due, in no small part, to the input of the producer. In this case, the man at the helm was his friend Greg Leisz. He grew up just across the cement canal that was once called the San Gabriel river. Alvin said on rare occasion, it actually held water. Leisz is a master string player and producer; his input on the album is undeniable. If you’ve attended a fair share of concerts over the years, it’s likely you’ve seen him. He’s been here often, working with artists like Lucinda Williams, Ray LaMontagne and Eric Clapton. Alvin informed us that Greg couldn’t be with us tonight. He was busy slumming with some guy named Jackson Browne over in Europe.
If anybody has ever written two better ballads than 4th Of July and Border Radio, I’d like to know who they are. The former brought the audience to its feet. A bucket list dream is to sing along with that one on Independence Day. The latter is a personal touchstone. The version on King is a song that grew up and took on new life as 9 Volt Heart. This one appeared years later on my favorite Alvin album, Ashgrove. It connects a generation who grew up with a transistor radio, tucked beneath our pillows on school nights; dialed in to some 50,000 watt border radio that skipped off the ionosphere all the way from Mexico to Canada. On those AM waves was all the music that commercial stations could or would not play. It changed kids like the Alvin brothers. And me. When he sings it, I still weep with appreciation for a gift that was once there for the taking.
Two beautiful encore numbers. Abilene from the album BlackJack David and the moving Dry River. While many in the audience shouted for 5 MORE!, my friend simply said. “That’s enough. It’s perfect just as it is.” I had to agree.
Nearly two hours. One 52 minute album front to back. And a couple of encore numbers. The rest was doing what great singer/songwriters were born to do: tell us stories and make the world outside disappear. The time flew by. That’s live music at its best. It’s the fix I go out in search of, night after night.
Dave Alvin will be back before long. He’s the ultimate road dog. I don’t know which of the faces on that Mt Rushmore he’ll present. His fans will be waiting for him. The night will once again be memorable. As I walked from The Cedar, I spied a woman proudly showing her Dave Alvin For President t-shirt. I hope he doesn’t. It would take too much time from writing great songs. But we could sure do a lot worse. If it’s what it takes to carve that face into the rock, he’s got my vote.