The Alvins Prove It Is Never too Late for Brotherly Love: Phil and Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones – Dakota Bar (Minneapolis, Minn. – July 26, 2014)
I knew going in it was going to be an emotional night at the Dakota Bar in Minneapolis. Phil and Dave Alvin were performing together for the first time in Minnesota for a long time. Had it really been nearly thirty years since they last played together here? Having attended their previous shows with the Blasters at First Avenue and later warming up for Eric Clapton at the St Paul Civic Center, it seemed like it was just yesterday that the Alvins and their brash band, the Blasters, from California stormed the music world with one of the best debut records to come out in ages.
Like anything of quality and substance, this was no fluke. The core of the band, the Alvin brothers, Phil, the elder of the two, possessed one of those voices that you are only born with. His little brother Dave was already something of a monster on guitar and showed an early knack for writing. Both Alvins had an encyclopedic knowledge and appreciation of the roots of American music which they used to their great advantage not only on their self-titled first album but its follow up “Hard Line” three years later. But just when it looked like the Blasters had success in the palm of their hands, the brothers, as sibling rival brothers often do, agreed to disagree and Dave departed to pursue a critically acclaimed solo career. By a strange twist of fate, life paralleling art if you will, I find myself being fortunate enough to witness this reunion of two incredibly talented and headstrong sibling rival brothers and musicians thanks to my sibling rival brother.
The night got off to a tasteful if not overly energetic start with an acoustic set by singer songwriter Jay Souza and Bosco Sheff. The duo form the core of California roots inspired band, Patrolled by Radar. Souza performance consisted of interesting material in which, admittedly, the woman always seemed to get killed in the end. Let’s hope there is some counseling in Jay’s future, if for nothing else to give his characters some dimension. Accompanist Sheff played beautifully understated slide and overall Souza and Sheff set just the right mood for what was to come with their pleasing performance.
At precisely 9: 00 P.M. the Guilty Men and woman assembled on the platform, not for an execution but to execute as if their lives depended upon it. As applause built up the Alvin brothers donned the stage and quickly launched into the opening track of their new cd tribute to Big Bill Broonzy , Common Ground, “All By Myself”. Both Alvins played acoustic guitar to start leaving the fiery electric work on the opener to Guilty Men guitarist Chris Miller. As Phil began to sing the opening lines it was instantly apparent he still had his legendary pipes. The song ended with a wink and a nod with the famously combative brothers, after trading verses, shared the line that sums up their creative, if not personal relationship “I didn’t have no one to help me, had to do it all by myself”.
Dave, who acted as emcee throughout the night, introduced the next number, the Broonzy classic “Key to the Highway” with the story of how Phil, at the tender age of twelve, had taken harmonica lessons from the great Sonny Terry and was now going to show us what he learned, to which Phil quipped “…or more like what I forgot”. Phil was being more than modest as he reminded the crowd that in addition to that magnificent voice he was also one hell of a harp player.
The band got to stretch it out a little on the next one, the tasty Broonzy instrumental “Saturday Night Rub”. Next Dave announced that they would be taking a brief departure from the Broonzy catalogue with the next two numbers, a cover of the singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers “Never No More Blues” and Dave’s self-penned song for his mother “King of California, during which Phil departed the stage to give his little brother his deserved spotlight.
If there was ever any doubt as to whether Phil’s voice had fully recovered from the infection from an abscessed tooth which entered his bloodstream and nearly killed him on a Blasters tour of Spain they were quickly laid to rest as Phil channeled the yodeling Rogers holding a note for what seemed like an entire minute.
Things got really interesting the moment Dave switched over to his 1964 cream color stock Stratocaster that he has played onstage since 1983. For those who have never seen Dave Alvin play guitar they really have to put it on their bucket list like seeing Nolan Ryan pitch or Michael Jordan play basketball because this mother can play. Perhaps the greatest thing about Dave’s playing, in addition to the gorgeous natural tone and the fact that he does it all without any gimmicks or fancy pickups but just sheer talent, is that he always keeps his playing within the structure of the song. As an accomplished songwriter there is none of the jam band pointless noodling to Dave’s playing. Incredible and ferocious are two words that come immediately to mind. He had me muttering “shiiii-it” in absolute awe on numerous occasions throughout the night.
Dave and Phil ripped through the next four Broonzy numbers, “I Feel So Good”, “You’ve Changed”, the bawdy “How Do You Want It Done?” and poignant “Southern Flood Blues” with complete authority. Talk about “run what you brung” these cats “rode it like they stole it” to borrow a couple of old biker sayings.
Suddenly it was 1982 again as Phil reminded everyone how much we missed his voice with the Blasters favorite “Border Radio”. The next number was a reminder of why I love the blues, the fact that fans and musicians alike share a knowledge of the history of America’s greatest art form. From the heroes like Johnnie Ace to the scoundrels like Don Robey, founder of my favorite label Duke. Robey was so notorious for mistreating and taking advantage of his artists that many people, including myself, once believed that Robey had actually killed his labels biggest star, a belief since dispelled by research. Nevertheless it makes for interesting subject matter for a songwriter of Dave’s ability on “Johnnie Ace Is Dead”.
The Broonzy tribute continued for two more great covers “The Stuff” i.e. money and the young Alvin brothers’ fascination, like most children, with songs with naughty lyrics “Truckin’ Little Woman”.
For me the next number is when, as expected, things got a little emotional. Ever since Dave came out with his song “What’s up with your Brother?” it has been something of an inside joke between my brother and our many shared friends. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that my relationship to my older brother and sibling rival is more traditional and the reverse of what the perception of the Alvin brothers’ relationship appears to be in that my older brother is the more responsible one.
Like the Alvins, my brother and I have had our ups and down and I know that I have been mostly to blame for that. I will never be able to repay my brother for all the times he has saved me from myself or been there with money or tickets to shows he knew I could not afford. Despite the fact that those around us thought our relationship was irreconcilable, our mutual love of music brought us back from the abyss. So when Dave poignantly told the story of how close he had come to losing his brother and how thankful he was to be sharing a stage with him tonight, I just about cried. Then Dave added his personal wisdom reminding the audience not to let a day go by without telling the ones you love that you love them, whether it’s your brother, your sister, your parents, your children your dog or your cat before launching into “What’s up with your Brother?”. Amen brother.
I don’t think my brother or I could look at each other for fear of losing it. Thankfully the band followed up with the highlight of their second Blasters album “Samson and Delilah” which again reminded us what a great instrument Phil’s voice is. Just when you think Phil might steal the spotlight Dave follows with one of his beautiful songs “Dry River” which he introduced with a geography/hydrology lesson before ending with an homage to one of my personal heroes, the great Big Joe Turner, with “One Fat Stuff”.
Despite teasing the crowd that they only had time for one more number, the band, whose performance was brilliant all night, ended the night with a sustained rush of pure joy with the Blasters signature song, “Marie , Marie” followed by Dave’s beautiful original “4th of July” before ending with an instrumental medley of the Blasters traditional show ender “So Long Baby Goodbye” with a sample of “When the Saints Go Marching Home” thrown in perhaps as another reminder to not take things or people for granted. Amen brothers Phil and Dave and God Bless.
Phil Alvin, vocals, acoustic guitar, harp;
Dave Alvin, vocals acoustic and electric guitars;
The Guilty Ones:
Brad Fordham, bass;
Chris Miller, electric and slide guitar;
Lisa Pankratz, drums.
All by myself
Key to the highway
Saturday Night Rub
Never No More Blues
King of California
I Feel So Good
How Do You Want It Done?
Southern Flood Blues
Johnnie Ace Is Dead
Truckin’ Little Woman
What’s up with your Brother?
Samson and Delilah
One Fat Stuff
4th of July
Instrumental Medley: So Long Baby Goodbye, When the Saints…etc.