Made in America: Dave Alvin digs up his roots

By Mark Guarino

The lyrics of Dave Alvin’s best-known songs, “American Music,” well sums up his entire musical life: “We’ve got the Louisiana boogie and the Delta blues/we’ve got the country swing and rockabilly too/we got country western and Chicago blues…it’s American music.”   

So headlining a festival next week that happens to be called the American Music Festival and is stocked with performers from all those genres is no coincidence. But while roots bands are plentiful today, it wasn’t necessarily the case twenty-plus years ago when Alvin and his brother Phil formed the Blasters in L.A., where they grew up in the nearby suburb of Downey.   

The Blasters recorded just three albums and one live EP, covering then-obscure R&B, blues and country songs from the ‘40s through the ‘60s plus Alvin originals. Because it came up during the days of L.A. punk, it tossed reverence for historical accuracy out the window and spiked the songs with an unholy, hard rocking kick in the pants. The band’s legacy remains as a bridge from the past to the present day, the first time a generation of suburbanites reared on punk rock was introduced to fading generation of blues figures as Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker and New Orleans tenor saxman Lee Allen, who even became a sometime member of the band in its latter days.    

Like most music that bucked up against the early flickers of MTV, the band dissolved once labels switched priorities, placing good looks above musical grit. But in its heyday, the Blasters ended up royal ambassadors of American roots music, sharing stages with unlikely kindred spirits ranging from The Cramps to the Go-Go’s to Queen to X (with whom Alvin became a temporary member). Nationally, the band showed up on American Bandstand and even taped an episode of Soundstage with Carl Perkins and Willie Dixon at the Channel 11 studios. A new 52-track, two-CD anthology, “Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings” (Rhino/Warner Bros./Slash), has just been released, covering the band’s entire output.   

Today, Alvin reconciles that the “glory days of the L.A. music scene is over.” But that doesn’t mean the road has ended. Although he maintains an apartment in L.A., Alvin, 47, spends much of his year touring, performing dates solo and also with his band the Guilty Men, with whom he recorded seven albums. Although he retains a fanbase of old Blasters fans (the band still reunites from time to time), he has steadily roped a healthy contingent of fans who were introduced to him from his solo work, most meeting critical favor. While he was just the lead guitarist for the Blasters while his brother Phil sang, Alvin developed into a potent singer on his own. Two years ago, the L.A. Times Sunday magazine put him on their cover under the headline, “the king of California” (borrowed from one of his song titles) and last year, his acoustic-based album, “Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land” (HighTone) won a Grammy for best traditional folk album.    

In print, Alvin’s story songs and street tough sound are typically praised as being in similar company to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, except his music is usually only played on public and college radio stations. Exposure is through the old-fashioned way of his blues mentors: word of mouth or live. In about every major city, there’s a club that is Alvin’s loyal homebase and he is guaranteed to pack in a crowd whenever he’s in town. In Chicago, that club is FitzGerald’s.    

“There are certain clubs out there that think the musicians are scum. At FitzGerald’s, we feel like we’re wanted. With (club owner) Bill (FitzGerald), you almost feel like you’re a distant relative.”   

Despite a life in clubs, Alvin was tapped personally by Dylan to open up for a brief stadium tour he did in 1998 with Joni Mitchell. When the tour stopped in Chicago at the United Center, booming cheers greeted Alvin’s set, much louder than what he expects at a small club.   

“Musically, there are a lot of similarities (with Dylan),” he said. “Back when I started with the Blasters, no one could see the connection between the Blasters and folk music, but to me we always were. I think one of the great things about Bob Dylan is he never saw it on a historical level that was really dominated by the (Pete) Segers and the (Alan) Lomaxes.   

“Take Leadbelly. Everyone agrees Leadbelly’s a folk singer with East Coast credentials with (musicologist) Alan Lomax putting (him) in recital halls. Folk music as chamber music. But back ten years earlier, Leadbelly was doing the same songs in barrooms and honktonks where people were drinking and fighting and trying to get laid. He was playing the exact same music in a barroom. So is that folk music? To me, it can be both. That’s what Dylan’s been trying to do ever since Newport.”   

Alvin’s brand of amplified folk music is heard on his new live album, “Out of California” (HighTone). A songwriter who never records a new song until he’s performed it several times on a stage, Alvin said, for him, music is only vital when it’s performed in the present.   

“Without sounding New Age-y, you’re living in the present,” he said. “Every musician I’ve ever seen or played with is on stage with me. Every ex-lover, every ex-girlfriend is my lover again. Old songs are new songs. It’s a great feeling for two hours. The closest thing I can compare it to is jumping out of the space shuttle, floating into the cosmos When I go out to see a person perform and if they can get me to that place, that’s it.”

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