Hardly Strictly Sunday: Barn Burning With Dave Alvin and The Guilty Women
Let me start this review by saying that Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women nailed it at the Rooster Stage last Sunday. But before I get into a review of their performance, I feel I must confess some information regarding my association over the years with this band.
I promised myself when I started seriously collecting records and hanging out with musicians that the one thing I would never do is become a single minded psycho music fan. My roommates in college were the founders members of Cold Blood, a sixties rhythm and blues group signed to Bill Graham’s Fillmore Records. I met my wife on a blind date backstage at the Fillmore. I’ve been around music psychos most of my life who were either passionately into the Beatles, the Stones, Bruce or some Dave Mathews sounding band – eventually losing their perspective as to what’s good or what’s bad for their ears.
Then in the late eighties, I went to the Old Waldorf in San Francisco with Mark Edmunds, a friend of mine who sold rare old records to collectors around the world. Mark had insights into unknown artists and an impeccable ear for great overlooked music, the weird old music of all kinds. We had read about this group called the Blasters out of LA. Time Magazine hand boasted that the Blasters were the heirs to The Band. They played rockabilly, blues, country, Cajun and what the band called American Music. Before the Blasters took the stage in this small nightclub, Mark turned to me and said “either this band will be the biggest load of hype you’ve ever heard or they’ll be o.k..”
The Blasters plugged in looking like the descendants of Eddie Cochran with their pompadours and attire that was antithetical to look of the punk bands they shared the bill with. The energy level and the musicianship between Dave Alvin’s guitar playing and Phil Alvin’s hillbilly singing was explosive. After the first set, Mark turned to me and said “Damn, those guys are pretty good.” When they came out after an intermission with Lee Allen and Steve Berlin on horns and started playing like they were straight out of New Orleans, Mark proclaimed “these guys just might be one of the best bands I’ve ever heard.” I never missed a Blasters show in the Bay Area after that performance.
All of this is to say that this is going to be a biased review. I’ve traveled around the country to see Dave play solo or with his various bands or to attend a Blasters reunion. I’ve seen Dave solo in the dead of winter in Chicago with the Knitters in Oregon in the summer and in the early collaborative days of the Guilty Women at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. I’ve welcomed in the New Year with Dave and the Guilty Men at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach and Dave played my 50th birthday in Napa with the Guilty Men.
Now here I go….I don’t think I can ever recall a performance where Dave Alvin didn’t give 100% and deliver what his fans expected over the years. And for anybody who has met Dave, he is always friendly, approachable and the antithesis of the stereotypical arrogant rock jerk. He has always been true to his musical muse, playing American Folk Music which in his words “sometimes it’s loud, sometimes it’s quiet”
I first saw the Guilty Women at Hardly Strictly in 2009. I went a few months later to the Great American Music Hall and saw them again. Chris Gaffney had passed away in 2008 and it was very apparent through Dave’s website and from what he said at appearances that he took the death of his best friend very hard. The Guilty Women came together through his collaborations with these accomplished artists over the years. They decided together to try out a different version of the Guilty bands that would have the chance of extending Dave’s interpretation of his growing list of songs.
I ran into Dave the first year he played Hardly Strictly with the Guilty Men. He had just driven down from a gig in Reno that day. Hardly Strictly has evolved over the years from exclusively focusing on bluegrass to expanding into including other forms of roots American music. Dave commented to me that ” this looks like there’s a lot of acoustic music, should I go acoustic or electric?” He went out and opened with the intense blue clubs recollection “Ashgrove” for the first time that I’d heard it and blew the audience at the main stage away.
The Guilty Women band that took the stage this past Sunday sounded bigger, louder and tighter than any of the incarnations that I’d seen before. The band has been paired down to the same number of musicians as were in the Guilty Men. The lineup included Lisa Pankratz on drums, Sarah Brown on bass, Cindy Cashdollar on lap steel guitar, Christy McWilson on vocals and Dave on his trademark strat. Missing were Laurie Lewis on fiddle and Nina Gerber on guitar…both extremely well respected artists. Amy Ferris, a vital part of the original Guilty Women, tragically died shortly after their first album was released.
Without Laurie and Amy on fiddles in the group, the sound was much more straight ahead Blaster derivative rock. Cindy Cashdollar can blaze on the lap steel and compliment Dave’s stunning guitar solos which build in each song. Lisa Pankratz’s drums were brought up in the mix which made the band seem larger and more rock oriented.
Dave opened by with his monologue stating that Hardly Strictly is the best outdoor concert in the county. He then dedicated the set to Amy Ferris and Chris Gaffney and went to work. Dave and Christ McWilson traded vocals on “Potter’s Field” which retained its folky, country feel. “Fourth of July” has become Dave’s signature anthem and the Guilty Women drove this song home as well if not better than any of the Guilty incarnations. “California Bloodlines” is one of my favorite songs off the Guilty Women’s album and McWilson’s vocals sounded stronger and more confident than in the past. Dave started playing Barn Burning with just himself on guitar which flowed quickly into “California’s Burning” with the full band behind him.
There was a rumor going around that Dave and his brother, Phil, were checking out some of the other performers prior to Dave taking the stage. Half way through his set, Dave paused for a moment and said “were going to play a song that nobody sings better than my brother if he can ever get the lyrics right” which lead into “Long White Cadillac”. It was a blistering version, with Cindy inter-playing her lap steel licks with Dave’s building guitar solo. “Dry River” followed which tells the story of how the orange groves around Dave’s home town of Downey were plowed under for water culverts – a powerful staple in his performances. Dave and the women finished the set with a romping, rocking version of Que Sera Sera – originally made famous by Doris Day. I don’t think the Guilty Women version is being played in Doris’s home in Carmel.
The band came back for an encore which Dave introduced as “Here’s a song that the Blasters closed their sets with each night” and lunched into Marie Marie…and then Dave introduced his brother, Phil with “and here’s the man to sing it” Phil sang the entire song in Spanish, changing the name to “Maria, Maria.” Lisa Pankowitz told me later that Phil will only sing this song in Spanish these days. There are times where the chemistry between Dave is Phil is good and times where it is bitter. For this one song on this particular day the combination was pure atomic voodoo. Phil has a rare gift, not unlike Levon Helm, of channeling vocal intonations from a remote swampy place in the distant past. The crowd loved it and it took the entire set up a notch.
I caught Dave shortly after he came off stage. As I started to ask him a question he said “I’m amped. It’s like I took a shot of adrenaline.” There was clearly a powerful energy exchange between Dave and the audience. He did confirm that he is halfway through a new album that is scheduled to come out in the Spring of 2011. He also confirmed that it will include a duet with Phil, “What’s Up With Your Brother”, the first original song the two have sung together.
I stopped Phil on his way to catch a ride to his car. He was racing to catch a flight to LA to play with the Blasters and Nick Curran at an Eddie Cochran tribute concert that evening. I also spoke with Lisa Pankratz after the set. I asked her if she was aware or had heard of any male singers particularly in the roots music industry who have been backed by an all female band. She responded that top of mind she could think of no other band that had this configuration – ever. I’m fairly confident that there have been other bands and some No Depression reader will have an answer to this question. Lisa was quick to add that the fact that Dave has an all female band backing him is not a “gimmick” which is certainly reinforced merely by the level of talent in the group.
I told Dave that I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of the Guilty bands sounding better. He smiled and said “this is a great band, isn’t it?” I know that Chris Gaffney and Amy Ferris would have been proud to have been associated with Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women last Sunday.