Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin at Whittier College (Whittier, CA – Feb. 18, 2017)
The brothers Alvin ceased playing music together, for the most part, in the 1980s when Dave left the Blasters. Dave forged a rich and acclaimed solo career, while Phil continued with various incarnations of the Blasters, and released two excellent solo records. In 2014, they got together for the first time as a duo and cut a record of mostly acoustic Big Bill Broonzy songs, Common Ground. They toured, and kept enjoying themselves, so they cut a second record, the mostly electric Lost Time, the following year.
For the last few years, the brothers have taken their newly rekindled partnership on the road, tearing up clubs and barrooms, two combustible forces sparking almost supernatural heights in volume and energy when combined.
This show at Whittier College’s Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts was billed as a “Special Night of Acoustic Music.”
That it most certainly was.
Dave Alvin and Rick Shea came out for the first set, sans Phil. Shea’s colorful and nuanced guitar work accompanied Dave for years on the road and in the studio, and they play off each other with a free-flowing familiarity. The set is carefully tailored, but the songs breathe and expand.
The first set was essentially a suite for the suburbs of Southeast Los Angeles County – places like Whittier, Norwalk, Lynwood, and the brothers’ hometown of Downey – which so shaped the Alvins’ lives, and in many articulable ways represent a real Los Angeles not fully understood north of the Santa Monica or west of the San Diego Freeways.
Dave acknowledged his many friends and family in the crowd, especially cousins on his mother’s side from Whittier, before dedicating the opening song to his mother. “King of California” is the title track to Dave’s transitional 1994 album, where he began to reinvent himself, establishing a new, original voice.
“King of California” is at once personal and all encompassing – a tale of the westward ho that shook and shaped the nation, back when California was the last frontier. Alvin’s family, like so many who settled the Southland, especially the then-rural suburbs like Downey and Whittier, came from the South and Midwest. The shimmering treasure of the Sierras brought people first to San Francisco, the black skies of the Dust Bowl to the Central Valley, and the boom of the Second World War to the Los Angeles basin. There isn’t any more West for young men to go and seek their fortunes, build their lives from nothing, invent and reinvent themselves.
“Dry River,” a song about the stretch of the San Gabriel River that cuts through Downey, is, in some ways, an encapsulation of Dave Alvin’s artistry. Many among the mostly local crowd have also pondered that empty concrete ditch we call a river.
I was born by a river, but it was paved with cement
I was born by a river, but it was paved with cement
Still I’d stand in that dry river and dream that I was soaking wet
Dave sarcastically calls the Rio San Gabriel “mighty,” which gets quiet laughs of confirmation. But tonight, ironically, the San Gabriel ain’t so dry. Los Angeles – along with the whole of California – has been enduring a much needed, but much intense, rain. It is a rare and incongruous experience, driving along the 605 Freeway and spotting a blue streak where the empty grey San Gabriel bed should be. Intellectually you understand that the river is full because it rained, but you don’t fully accept it at first.
Someday it’s gonna rain
Someday it’s gonna pour
Someday that old dry river
Lord, it won’t be dry anymore
“Now, Downey is west of the San Gabriel River,” says Dave, “Whittier is east of the San Gabriel River. But we’re all San Gabriel River people here.”
Dave playfully reminisced about waking in the mornings as a kid to the sound of surf bands rehearsing in garages. For an unassuming suburb, Downey is graced with a diverse musical history. Downey Records was an independent record label run from Wenzel’s Music Town record shop on Lakewood Blvd. Wenzel’s recorded everything from blues and R&B stalwarts living in Los Angeles like Ace Holder and Little Johnny Taylor, to local garage and surf bands like the Rumblers and the Chantays. Dave runs through the opening licks of the Chantays’ “Pipeline” and “Boss” by the Rumblers on his acoustic, two local hits that have become staples of the genre over the decades.
But Downey’s most famous music came a few years later with the very unhip Carpenters.
“Downey Girl” is a song inspired by Karen Carpenter who, as Dave explains, cast a large, square shadow over the town. When Dave and Phil first started playing out in Hollywood and around LA, people would immediately associate Downey with the Carpenters, much to their chagrin. The Carpenters were not the Alvins’ bag. But Karen had a rare and poignant gift and, no matter one’s opinion of the music of the Carpenters, Karen’s voice is full of undeniable soul. You only have to listen. “Downey Girl” is a confessional, capturing almost the very moment one sees life a different way, an epiphany perhaps, but certainly growth.
“This is a song about becoming more mature,” says Dave, “And this is for Karen Carpenter.”
Well I never liked her music
I never saw her hanging ‘round
And I never said nothing
When people put her down
But now that I’m older
I can understand her pain
And I can feel a little pride
When people say her name
There were other remembrances, Dave dedicating songs to former Blasters road manager Wally Hanley, who passed away recently, and Dave’s former drummer and all around gentle soul Bobby Lloyd Hicks, who passed this very night.
After “Downey Girl,” we leave Southeast Los Angeles for “Abilene,” followed by “Somewhere in Time,” written with Los Lobos’ (and former Whittier residents) Louie Pérez and David Hidalgo.
The final song in the suite is “Ashgrove,” the title track to Dave’s 2004 album. “Ashgrove” is a rumination on Dave’s (and Phil’s) formative years sneaking into the famed Los Angeles folk club to witness first hand the living masters: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Reverend Gary Davis, T-Bone Walker. Opened in 1958, the Ash Grove burned down in 1973, and with it a significant portal into those worlds was lost. Buildings burn, loved ones die, new houses are built in the sprawl but it all means less and less the further away we come from the primary sources of the blues, the once vibrant embers smoldering into something cold and gone. The chorus almost becomes a mantra.
I wanna go back to the Ashgrove
That’s where I come from
I wanna go back to the Ashgrove
That’s where I belong
When Phil Alvin joins Dave and Shea for the second set, the evening takes an even deeper turn into the roots of American music.
Phil Alvin’s voice is a howl from the Otherworld. There is simply nothing like it. Not anymore. The genius of the Alvins lies in their adolescent curiosity. They came of age at a unique time when the legends of the blues and R&B were past their commercial prime, but still on the scene, on some level, for those willing to seek them out. Some, like pianist Lloyd Glenn, played the lounges in prime rib restaurants, like Marmac’s in Downey, where the Alvins would go and watch the master in action in a room where no one else cared. Some, like Sonny Terry, gave 11-year-old Phil harmonica lessons for $10 a piece. Others like T-Bone Walker and Lee Allen, who eventually played in the Blasters, mentored the young brothers.
But the man Dave and Phil speak of most reverently still is the “Boss of the Blues” Big Joe Turner. Big Joe Turner was a blues shouter – 300 pounds of muscle and blood and joy, he reigned supreme over the vibrant LA blues and R&B scene on Central Avenue. Dave switched to electric for a sly and tasty “Cherry Red Blues,” one of the four Big Joe Turner songs on Lost Time. Every guitar lick was perfect – light and bouncy and bluesy and sexy; every bawdy, braggadocios word like a banshee’s wail, a soulful call of a dying method of singing – an authenticity, a subtlety and a shout – that exists in very few places outside of Phil’s vessel, and the brothers’ insatiable porous souls.
Dave is on, charming, engaging. Phil says nothing from the stage the entire show. He doesn’t have to. It’s all in his voice. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, how much is told in a single note of the blues?
There were a lot of Big Bill Broonzy songs. There was a ton of guitar and harp. Dave played heavy resonator and Fender throughout. There was Phil’s yodeling “Never No More Blues,” the Jimmie Rodgers song they learned as kids through a Bob Wills 78. There was no band, other than Shea on acoustic, but the brothers can’t help but make a racket together, building to loud and intense crescendos.
There was “Border Radio,” a song that seems to get more poignant with each new context, a true American standard.
She calls toll-free and requests an old song
Something they used to know
She prays to herself that wherever he is
He’s listening to the border radio
The most overtly playful moment came with “What’s Up with Your Brother?,” a song Dave wrote specifically as a duet with Phil for Dave’s 2011 album Eleven Eleven. At the time, there was no talk of the subsequent reunion, and the song became a sort of initial olive branch for the brothers’ musical rekindling.
Dave takes tasty leads, leaning into his brother, playfully taunting and teasing him in that way younger brothers can. Phil breaks face for one of the few times in the evening, smiling at his baby brother, the accomplished bluesman, a look of pride escaping his chiseled face. The look is returned throughout the evening whenever Phil unleashes his mighty voice. The brothers seem to be saying, how lucky am I?
The final song was Dave’s “Fourth of July,” a song that somehow captures the feel and sounds and smells of Southeast Los Angeles. The stucco apartment buildings, the courtyard steps, the heartache of broken people living broken lives. “I wrote this song about my hometown,” says Dave, “and your hometown, wherever that may be.”
The small theater was on its feet in applause as the house lights suddenly went up. As the disbelieving crowd began to shuffle out, the Alvins reemerged for an encore, “I know Whittier is an early town but this is ridiculous,” said Dave.
The audience retook their seats as they launched into the Harold Burrage smoker “Crying For My Baby,” Phil’s primordial howl filling the theater. This was followed by the only song capable of concluding a homecoming such as this, “Marie Marie” – the first song from the first side of the Blasters’ first major release, one of those rare moments when everything makes sense. The words of one brother filtered through the voice of the other, a synergy destined to burn bright and not last, miraculously reawakened, for now, a block off Whittier Blvd., mere miles east of the mighty, rushing waters of the fertile Rio San Gabriel.