By Eleni P. Austin
For Dave Alvin, music has been a lifelong passion, and luckily for him (and the rest of the world) he has made his living making music since the late ‘70s.
Born in 1955, Dave, along with his older brother, Phil, grew up in Downey, a suburb in Los Angeles County best known for giving the world The Carpenters. Thanks to the influence of an older cousin, the brothers were raised on the Blues. They also soaked up the sounds of Folk, R&B and Rockabilly, all before puberty hit.
Throughout their teens they made musical pilgrimages to L.A., searching out obscure Blues records and attending shows at venerable clubs like The Ash Grove. It was there they met heroes like Muddy Waters and Big Joe Turner and watched legends like Reverend Gary Davis and Lightnin’ Hopkins perform.
Although both brothers attended college, and Phil even began teaching mathematics, their dual obsessions with music only intensified. In 1979, they enlisted bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman and The Blasters were born. The four-piece pioneered a Roots Rock sound that incorporated all their seminal influences. They quickly made a name for themselves gigging throughout L.A., sharing stages with like-minded acts like X and Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs. Phil was a natural lead singer, very much the “voice” of the band, but Dave emerged as a protean songwriter and badass guitar-slinger, essentially becoming the heart and soul of the band. By 1980, they’d released their debut, American Music, via the Rollin’ Rock label.
A year later, they secured a record deal with the up and coming indie Punk label, Slash. All told, The Blasters wound up recording three more excellent studio albums and a live EP before calling it quits in 1985. After participating with members of X in a Country-Folk side-project, The Knitters, Dave stepped in when X guitarist, Billy Zoom quit the band. He wound up adding his voice, guitar work and songwriting acumen to their sixth long-player, See How We Are.”
In 1987. he embarked on a solo career. In the last 35 years, he has released 13 solo albums, occasionally reconvened The Blasters and collaborated with Phil on a couple of records that featured versions of their favorite classic Blues songs. Most recently, he made a record with Texas legend, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, From Downey To Lubbock, In 2018.
Back in 2011, Dave released his 11th solo effort, pithily entitled Eleven Eleven (which is also his birthdate). 11 years later, the time seemed right to reissue the album with three bonus tracks.
The record roars to life with “Harlan County Line.” Spitfire slide guitar riffs collide with menacing bass lines, brawny rhythm guitar, atop a Bluesy, shuffle rhythm. Lyrics paint a vivid, somewhat autobiographical portrait of a nomadic musician; “Another morning, another motel bed, another city waiting up ahead, light another menthol to clear my mind/Of those memories I pretend to forget, ‘cause I always want to live without regrets, but yeah, I still think of her from time to time, and is she still living across the Harlan County line.” Even as he pines for what might have been, the muscular arrangement keeps him from truly (to quote Mr. Mojo-Risin), wallowing in the mire. Rattlesnake riffs uncoil on the break, striking and retreating, before slithering through the mix with reptilian stealth. Rumination gives way to reality; “The years disappear out on the highway, and I lost her number somewhere along the way, but I’ll say a little prayer that she’s doing fine, another morning, another motel bed, another city waiting up ahead, and another small memory to leave behind, somewhere cross the Harlan County line.”
As much as Dave Alvin is an accomplished musician and songsmith, he is first and foremost, a gifted storyteller. That is the truism that threads through this watershed record. Take “Murrietta’s Head,” bramble-thick guitars, searing bass lines, a propulsive timbale kick and keening lap steel are tethered to a galloping backbeat. Cogent lyrics quietly unspool a richly detailed yarn narrated by a cash-strapped rancher who aims to claim the bounty for an outlaw on the run; “I hear Joaquin Murrietta steals horses and gold, killed a sheriff in Mariposa, or so I’m told, he’s the Devil’s bloody bastard, wicked and no good, but all the Mexicans swear that he’s Robin Hood/Well, with my wife and my sons, I work as hard as I can, on thirteen acres of California land, but the rains never came, and I’ve got debts I can’t pay, now the bank’s gonna steal my farm away.” Sinewy guitars scratch and snarl, riding roughshod on the break. As the posse moves in, the ethical rancher makes an uneasy peace with his conscience; “Now the Bible says, you reap what you sew, that may be right, but I don’t really know, well, if it is, Murrietta will be damned to Hell, and when I kill him, I’ll be damned as well.”
Initially, “Gary, Indiana 1959” is powered by spiky, Boogie-Woogie piano (courtesy former Blaster and forever friend, Gene Taylor) and a clickity-clack beat. As the arrangement gathers speed, shang-a-lang guitars, walking bass lines and a walloping big beat lock into an irresistible West Coast Swing groove. The saga of a dying, industrial town is told through the eyes of a former steel worker; “I’m old and weak and gray, and I’m runnin’ out of time, yeah, but you should have seen me, brother, when I was young and in my prime…I was a steel working man with two kids and a loving wife, and the Union was strong, with smokestacks burning day and night, back in Gary, Indiana 1959.”
“Johnny Ace Is Dead” offers so much more than a rote recitation of the facts surrounding his death. The trail-blazing Memphis musician, died in 1954, from an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Dave’s coruscated lead guitar blazes atop chugging bass and a locomotive rhythm. The melody shares some DNA with Chuck Berry’s epochal 1955 hit, “You Can’t Catch Me.” The lyrics paint a vivid tableau of that shocking event; “Down in Houston, Texas on a Christmas night, with a gun in his hand and his name up in lights, he was young and handsome, the Prince of the Blues, in a sharkskin suit and alligator shoes/He was flirting with some women who had come backstage, he said ‘Ladies, want to see me play a wild game?’ but Big Mama Thorton said ‘Go sing your song and put that damn thing down before something goes wrong.’ Big Mama cried ‘Dear Lord,’ Big Mama said, he put a .22 pistol right up to his head, then he smiled at the ladies, now Johnny Ace is dead.” Scorching, cross-cut guitars ignite on the break as the final verse offers a chilling denouement; “When Johnny came home to Memphis, Tennessee, everyone on Beale Street came out to see, there were pimps and gamblers, husbands and wives, women old and you came to say goodbye/And as the choirs sang and the preachers prayed, five thousand mourners marched him to his grave, well there may be a Heaven and there may be a Hell, no one knows for sure but Johnny Ace knows damn well.”
While most of this record offers a rollicking good time, the action slows for three numbers. “Manzanita,” is a duet with singer-songwriter Christy McWilson. Cascading acoustic arpeggios are matched by thready bass lines, sylvan electric guitar, weepy pedal steel and a loping beat. Trading verses, they offer their own perspectives a teenage romance that couldn’t be sustained. But by the chorus, her feathery vocals wrap around his gruff baritone, as they each yearn for a lost and forsaken love. Dave has the final word; “They built houses and highways near the hillsides, and I married and divorced twice since then, but there’s still manzanita in the canyons, where I pray someday, I’ll walk with her again.”
Co-written by his pal, Chris Gaffney, “No Worries Mija” is a courtly, South Of The Border charmer that echoes both Bruce Springsteen’s “Meeting Across The River” and Los Lobos’ “Just A Matter Of Time.” Braided acoustic guitars wash over upright bass, plaintive piano and Conjunto-flavored accordion. Lyrics meant to reassure, tell the story of a family man caught between a rock and a hard place; “No worries Mija, everything will be fine, I’m gonna make us some money doing a drive cross the borderline, it’s a favor for a friend, and it shouldn’t take much time, so no worries, Mija, everything will be fine.” Shivery accordion notes edge the melody’s margins, tinged with longing and apprehension.
Flinty slide guitar and pensive acoustic notes, chunky electric riffs, barely-there bass and rumbling drums power “Black Rose Of Texas.” A tender elegy to former love, lyrics that recall better days are suffused in heartache; “In The Honky Tonks and Punk Rock bars, sometimes it felt so good to be alive, doing the two-step across the hardwood floor, while telling some wild boys some white lies/But the music always had to stop, and you had to face the world on your own, Black Rose of Texas, I hope you found your way home.” A meandering slide solo mirrors the sorrow and regret.
The track-list on this reissue is slightly reconfigured from the original 2011 release, and includes three bonus tracks, beginning with “Beautiful City ‘Cross The River.” Originally written for the TV series, Justified, it opens with some ethereal harmonies from Christy McWilson, that are quickly supplanted by slashing electric guitars, bee-stung slide guitar, growly bass lines, lilting accordion and a pile-driving beat. Panoramic lyrics shape-shift from outlaw saga to redemption song, to romantic lament. Dave rips an incendiary solo that simply crackles with authority, followed by fluid accordion notes and prickly slide guitar. The song’s final verse is wildly cinematic; “I didn’t hurt no one, I didn’t fire a gun, just stole what I could and then I began to run, drove three long days straight to El Paso, with a bag full of cash and visions of Mexico, now all I’m asking is that you will deliver me over the borderline to that Beautiful City Across The River.”
“Never Trust A Woman” is a boisterous duet with brash Blues singer Candye Kane. The stop-start melody is anchored by an oscillating stripper-beat, gritty guitars and throbbing bass lines. Lyrics offer a salty back-and-forth between warring spouses; “Well, the mailman has been here three times and we still ain’t got no mail, and the sheriff keeps coming over, but nobody’s going to jail/I found all those magazines that you keep trying to keep hid, and you keep calling the babysitter, when you know we got no kids.” Raucous, raunchy and slightly ribald, their repartee is momentarily sidelined as sweat-soaked electric riffs coalesce with some blistering slide runs on the break. This one is a down n’ dirty delight.
Meanwhile, there’s the metallic slink of “Signal Hill.” Knotty guitars sidle up to loose-limbed bass and a rattle-trap beat. Dave’s efficient, yet expressive lyrics echo venerated L.A. antecedents like Nathaneal West, John Fante and James M. Cain, as he chronicles a wanton assignation with a sympathetic older woman. He deftly delivers this warm but wary epilogue; “After she passed out, I just stared down at the city lights, and thought of all the dreams and the broken hearts in the night, then I listened to her breathe, soft and sweet like a child until the sun rose cold and lonely on the top of Signal Hill.
Dave pays tribute to his older brother Phil on one cut, and his brother-in-arms, Chris Gaffney on a couple more. “What’s Up With Your Brother” is a sly and sardonic fraternal duet that pays homage to sibling rivalries and the ties that bind. Shuddery harmonica butts up against fuzz-crusted guitars, greazy bass, Honky-Tonk piano, spiraling organ and a clankin’ beat. They take turns good-naturedly griping that despite their (separate) myriad accomplishments all anyone ever asks is “what’s up with your brother?” They scrap and tussle, talk a little shit, and by the finish, Dave attempts to dismiss his bro with a curt “See you later, Phil.” But Phil gets the last word, retorting, “See you at Thanksgiving!” Fractious, rambunctious and irresistible.
“Run Conejo Run” delivers a pocket history of Chris Gaffney’s peripatetic journey from Golden Gloves boxing champ, to world-class musician, and pays fealty to symbiotic friendship they shared. Semaphore bass lines and a brawny Bo Diddley beat hold down the bottom as strafing electric guitars thrust and parry with fiery slide runs. Dave’s dexterous prose touches on the verisimilitude of a life well lived; “He told me his life story, his joys and his regrets, from the hot streets in Tucson, to the cold prison in Quebec/From his ex-wives and old lovers and the promises they believed, to the daughter in Louisiana, that he never wanted to leave.”
The record closes with “Two Lucky Bums,” a hoary, slightly hokey duet between Dave and Chris. Plangent, strummy guitar connects with angular bass and brushed percussion. These brothers in arms acknowledge that they’ll never be millionaires, but they’ve had a good run; “Been chasing the same old dreams down a road that never ends, and given the chance old friend, I know we’d do it again/We’ve got some blues, we’ve got some regrets, made some mistakes but nonetheless, I know we’d do it again.” Blithe accordion notes adds a breezy, easy feeling, landing somewhere between Gypsy Jazz and cheerful, Depression era numbers like Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Have Another Cup Of Coffee.” It’s a sweet and sentimental end to a brilliant effort.
Much of this record was inspired by the loss of his compadre Chris, to liver cancer in 2008. In the ensuing years both Dave and Phil have battled health issues and musicians like drummer Don Heffington (Lone Justice, a million other things) Gene Taylor (Blasters, Canned Heat, Fabulous Thunderbirds) and Candye Kane have passed on, rendering it all the more bittersweet.
For nearly four and a half decades, Dave has created a musical mosaic that has forged new paths even as it honors his earliest influences. Eleven Eleven is a benchmark album, ripe for rediscovery.