X Meets its Match! X’s Alvin and Flatlanders’ Gilmore, A Pair Made in House Concert Heaven
They were good buddies, two legends of folk/country/rock on the road again. Not with their historic bands, The Flatlanders/The Wronglers (Gilmore), or The Blasters/X/The Knitters (Alvin), or others. Just these two greats, spinning stories and sharing their songs. Tinged, yet brightened, with age. Humor and beauty entwined a circle of ageless song. First stop of their national tour, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Dave Alvin were playing on a balmy late-October night in the Norfolk, Virginia, back yard of local musical icon, Jim Morrison, hosting Americana greats for some 16 years of house concerts. Alvin and Gilmore, began their tour, with easy banter and ageless repertoire, in an intimate tent bulging with adoring fans.
Earlier that night, after an easy-going sound check, colored with conversation, the two told me they were excited to be playing together. When the idea was floated, they said they’d jumped at it. In a brief interview (they had another appointment before the show), I did learn from Gilmore that the Flatlanders might get together to record a new album in the not-too-distant-future, and Alvin said it was a possibility that he and his brother Phil might, before long, reprise their famed duo.
Part of that interview follows:
RW: What are you greatest influences?
Gilmore: “My earliest memory is Hank Williams and all that country music. That’s what I was exposed to. But, then I got way into folk blues and folk. They think of me as country, but I’m more folk blues, especially that old New Orleans R & B, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, Fats Domino.”
RW: (to Alvin) “What about you,”
Alvin: “Same answers as Jimmie’s.”
Gilmore: “I didn’t know how we’d be together. He’s a Blaster, you know? But, something we discovered, when we first started getting ready to do this, we’re a lot alike.”
Alvin: (when they had to leave early) “Make up your own answers, probably better than we’d come up with!”
The interview presaged the humorous stage banter, between Alvin, Gilmore, and audience members in the North Shore Point House Concerts show to follow. Another exchange went like this:
Gilmore: “We all (The Flatlanders) got together three weeks ago, as we do every few years, and we floated the idea of doing something, and decided we should.”
RW: “Maybe a new album?!”
Gilmore: “That might be. Our follow-through isn’t sometimes as quick as getting the ideas. And, right now, I’m spending time with this guy!”
Me: “Dave, how about you?”
Alvin: “Have I got any plans to make a record with the Flatlanders? No, I don’t have that in mind.”
Gilmore: (chuckling) “It’s been going on in my head!”
Me: (to Gilmore) I’d been following you most of my adult life.
Alvin: (to Gilmore) “Oh, he’s who we keep seeing on the road behind us!”
The show itself was spontaneous, an exciting night of icons improvising. No set lists, they winged it, back and forth to each other’s songs, backing each other on vocals and guitar. Jimmie Dale added some fine harmonica to the mix. At one point, Alvin suggested that they sing river songs after he’d covered one of the night’s highlights, Merle Haggard’s “Kern River” Throughout, Alvin played his technically-brilliant heart out on acoustic guitar, his playing – whether on acoustic or electric – is widely considered to be among the best.
North Shore Point House Concerts
Another showstopper was his own, “Fourth of July.” It highlighted Alvin’s lyrical powers, “She’s waiting for me/ when I get home from work/But things just ain’t the same/She turns out the light and cries in the dark/Won’t answer when I call her name/On the stairs, I smoke a cigarette alone/The Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below/Hey, baby, it’s the Fourth of July/Hey, baby, it’s the Fourth of July.” At a house concert, you can see the heart of the production end as well. When the opening chords of “Fourth of July” began, host Morrison raised his arms in celebration. Other magnificent songs followed, including Alvin hits, “King of California” “Dry River,” and “Harlan County Line.”
My celebration came with Gilmore’s encore, “Dallas.” Gilmore can break my heart in his opening strains. From the front row, virtually in his reedy lap, I watched his jagged features as he broke into the “medley of his hit,” quoting his friend, Townes Van Zandt. “Dallas” showcased perhaps his greatest strength, a virtually unique and outrageously powerful voice. Yet, it also is a marker for his songwriting abilities, “Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?/ Well Dallas is a jewel, yeah, Dallas is a beautiful sight./And Dallas is a jungle, but Dallas gives a beautiful light./Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?/Well, Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you’re down./But when you are up, she’s the kind you want to take around.”
Jimmie and Dave, played acoustic that night. In the pre-show interview, Gilmore told me that he only plays acoustic, unusual for a performer whose music often has a strong country-rock flavor.
Gilmore: “My father was a guitar player, and everything was electric. My dad wanted me to play electric, but I play acoustic.”
Alvin: “Your act of rebellion!”
Gilmore: (laughing) “I play electric like I play acoustic. But, you can’t. It’s a different instrument.”
Gilmore’s songs that night showcased his voice, like roses tendril-ling skyward from deep roots. His high-wire twang evoked the quiet passion of great songs like, “Just a Wave, Not the Water,” “Another Colorado,” and “Treat Me like a Saturday Night,” leading off with “I Think I’m Going to Go Downtown.”
Jimmie ended the show with The Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” (“Love is but a song to sing,
Fear’s the way we die, You can make the mountains ring, Or make the angels cry, Though the bird is on the wing, And you may not know why, Come on people now, Smile on your brother, Everybody get together, Try to love one another, Right now), a perfect close, to the night and this point in time, a momentous start for these humble and funny, yet larger-than-life musical monsters on their off-to-see-the-wizard rambles.