Auburn is a strange town about 40 miles east of Sacramento in the foothills. It's a working class town where you get the sense that the Great Recession has had a particular impact on its people. In 1849 a group of French gold miners arrived and camped in what became known as the Auburn Ravine. By 1850 the towns population had grown to 1500 people and Auburn was chosen as the seat of Placer County. It was also the final stop for the Pony Express. This rural whistle stop seemed like the perfect setting to catch a Dave Alvin show, an artist known for his love of California lore and history.
Dave and the Guilty Ones were playing at the Auburn Arts Center which turned out to be the Liquor Outlet Event Center which actually was a large room on the back side of Pistol Pete's bar both located in a funky rundown stripmall. The room held about 200 people and you could walk right up to the edge of the stage. This is about as close as you can get to having the Guilty band in your front room.
Dave and I had communicated through Facebook and I was going to try and interview him before he kicked off his set in Auburn. My brother, his wife and his twin sons live and Newcastle ten miles south of Auburn, and agreed to join me for the show. They don't get out very much and I knew that this band would blow them all away. A drunk middle age woman came out of Pistol Pete's and when asked where the concert was, she replied "the Journey concert is thirty miles down the road at the Arco Arena." I got to thinking about music critics that I knew who covered only the Journey's, The Sting's and the Rolling Stones - the big concerts. Here I was up in the foothills in a strip mall to cover somebody who I consider an American treasure..somebody who still plays what I consider authentic rock n roll...and plays like his life depends on it.
Dave was napping when I arrived so I settled in with my family for a few beers and took in the opening set: The Bob Woods/Gary Alan Campbell band. I was surprised at how good this band was with their mixture of western swing and New Riders, Commander Cody type of 60's country music. Bob Woods told me that he moved to Sacramento in the 70's and still had a day job working for the railroad. They played mostly their own songs and a Blackie Ferrell song entitled Sonora's Death Row which Dave covered on his West of the West cd. Check out Bob Woods cd's on line. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Dave & the Guilty Ones took the stage at a little after 10:00 and opened with a scorching So Long Baby Goodbye. I could tell that this was going to be a stellar evening. The Guilty Ones are Guilty woman Lisa Pankratz on drums, her husband, Brad Fordham on bass and Guilty Man, Chris Miller on guitar. The new songs from the critically acclaimed new album "Eleven Eleven" including "Harlan County Line,"” Johnny Ace is Dead" and “Black Rose of Texas” fit in well with the standard Dave Alvin songs. The guitar driven band was tight, and breathtaking at times. I hadn't seen Dave and the Guilty people since he last appeared at Hardly Strictly in 2010 and he sounded better than ever. Lisa Pankratz reminded me of Al Jackson when i saw the deceased drummer back up Al Green in the 70's. Like Jackson she kept her eyes riveted on the singer and used the drums to drive the momentum of the songs. I could use up all the space allotted for this blog talking about the concert but for those of you who have seen Dave and his various bands, I don’t have to explain the set list or what he does so well. If there were any subtle changes it struck me that Dave talked about former band members who had passed away more and even told more stories about growing up with his brother and how his brother can out-sing him but at least he can remember the words. He also opened songs and or closed them with extended explorations into long lost r&b songs. He opened “Johnny Ace is Dead” signing a few bars of “Forever My Darling (Pledge of Love).” That moment alone channeled Chris Gaffney. The band finished up with "Marie Marie" a little after midnight. The crowd had thinned out and the club looked like the local asylum had dropped off some elderly sister brides dancing by themselves and guys in cowboy hats spinning around and hugging each other after each number. There wasn't a person there who didn't feel like they hadn't witnessed something special.
I caught up with Dave a week later. He’d played the Mystic Theater in Petaluma the following night and a number of other gigs working his way back to Los Angeles. I had researched the history of Los Angeles American music and planned to include my friend John Siamas, whose father founded the Keen label with his partner Bob Keane in 1955, on the call. Siamas Sr. and Keane put out a lot of classic records but none more classic that the Sam Cooke records. John was unable to make the call so I winged my questions about Los Angeles nightclubs and rhythm and blues history. Here’s some of the conversation I had with Dave which took some unusual detours along the way.
RS: You reminded me of Hank Thompson (the model for Bad Blake in Crazy Heart) with that gig in Auburn. I thought that that you’d make the connection between your music and the historic California setting.
Dave: I’ll take that Hank Thompson reference as a compliment. Yeah I could feel the history in that town.
RS: I was going to have John Siamas on this call. His father was one of the founders of Keen Records which as you know recorded Sam Cooke among other great groups in the 50’s. I was taking to John and was surprised to learn about all the LA connections to New Orleans over the years.
Dave: Well, Lee Allen out of the Cosmo Studio era and his influence certainly contributed to the Blasters sound.
RS: Speaking of the Blasters, back in the day there was a homemade Zine called Atomic Voodoo that used that term to describe bands that captured true moments of transcendence, a power exchange between the performer and the audience, in live rock appearances. I certainly have experienced those moments with both the Blasters and with your own Guilty groups. I can’t recall a bad performance no matter if you are playing to 150 people in Auburn or a thousand people in Golden Gate Park.
Dave: You know these things when they are happening and we always strive for those moments when we perform. Gaffney and I use to call it phoning it in if we weren't giving it our all. I’d look over at Gaffney when we were playing at times and see him gesturing a fake telephone up to his ear.
RS: I think that you can experience those transcendent moments just as much with accomplished bands in small venues as you can going to see Journey or Hendrix play a large auditorium.
Dave: Hendrix transcended any environment in a certain size venue. Over the years I’ve learned that you have to play music differently depending on the size of the venue. We play “bar music” which is dense and packed in. When the Blasters toured with Queen, their guitar player Brian May taught me that you could hit one chord and it would reverberate around a huge auditorium. You don’t have to hit that chord twice. Queen wrote music for arenas and that’s not a put down. We play music that is filled with lots of notes that creates a sound that’s very dense. We use to tour with George Thorogood which is an example of how there are thousands of ways to play the blues, some of it immediately recognizable and some of it not.
RS: I once saw George Thorogood at the Berkeley Community Theater. Big Joe Turner opened for him and was booed by the biker crowd who had come to hear “One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer.” Thorogood came out and lectured the audience for not showing Big Joe the proper respect.
Dave: He didn’t do that for us. (laughs) When we opened for Thorgood we got as many boos as we had when we opened for Queen.
RS: I was impressed by the recent release of a live Blasters album from a February 14th appearance at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. There are live Blasters recordings but this one, although not perfect, captured the excitement of the Blasters from that era.
Dave: We’re pretty happy with the way that (cd) turned out. It came directly from the sound board so there was no way of remixing it. There were never any live recordings with just the four of us (without Gene Taylor, Lee Allen and Steve Berlin). This one turned up and I agree it sounds good.
RS: I’ve always had this theory that the best rock and roll is played by teenagers, kids going through puberty like when think of the early recordings made by Mitch Ryder or Elvis.
Dave: I’m not so sure about that. There is something to be said for being young and innocent learning the basic G, C or D chords. I don’t think the good artists loose that innocence and phone it in. I don’t care what size venue we play, I’m always looking for ways to improve my playing, keep it fresh and that keeps it from being just a job.
RS: Tell me about your new bass player (Brad Fordham)?
Dave: I met Brad in the late 80’s. Lisa and Brad are husband and wife. Brad started out in Canadian rockabilly bands and has played with Kelly Willis, Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Jerry Jeff Walker. ( And later I learned Wanda Jackson, Mason Ruffner and coincidentally, Hank Thompson). Christy McWilson took me to a club in Austin a year and a ½ ago and I saw Lisa and Brad playing together and said “I want to be in a band with these people.” Lisa has played drums with a number of bands including on the first Derailers album that I produced. She can play a country shuffle as well a mean reggae beat. She has so much music in her and comes out of that Cosmic Cowboy scene in Texas.
RS: So what’s next for you and your next incarnation of the Guilty bands?
Dave: If I knew, I wouldn’t discuss what I have in mind, but then again I don’t have any plans. There are some artists who plot what their every move is going to be to get their shot at becoming a pretty big star. My big plan is basically not die on the road, just keep playing until I drop. The Blasters were convinced that we could have had hit records, but now I don’t think about hit records. I want people to like my songs but I don’t plan on what a song is going to sound like. I let the songs I write dictate whether they’ll be electric or acoustic.
RS: Your new album Eleven Eleven has a different production sound to it. The mix sounds different than on any of your previous albums. I play your new cd for people who are not familiar with your music and their first comment is “wow that cd has a really nice sound to it.”
Dave: This is the first time I wrote most of the songs on the road and I would come in between stops along the interstate and record them. As you know I often work in a studio with Greg Leitz. This time I produced the album myself (working with Craig Adams who also helped produce Ashgrove and West of the West) which was quite liberating. The album was recorded at Wislow Court Studio which is about the size of Sun Studios and we recorded it live with not to many sweetings. We were able to get a raw, sweaty sound….like this is what you get when you come out and see our band. It has a real nice energy to it.”
I had thought Eleven Eleven referred to Dave's eleventh album in the year 2011 but it also refers to his birthday on November 11th. The next time I have the opportunity I'll have that conversation with Dave about the history of Americana music in Los Angeles.