By Eleni P. Austin
Dave Alvin is the kind of guy who has an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Rock & Roll, Country, Folk, Blues (especially the Blues), you name it, and he could probably teach a master class. A musician’s musician, and an under-sung guitar god, he doesn’t just play a guitar, he plays a 1934 National Steel Duolian guitar or a 1964 Fender Telecaster, a ’54 Martin 00-18 and a 1958 Martin D-28. So, it’s wholly apropos that his new album is entitled From An Old Guitar: Rare And Unreleased Recordings.
Born in 1955, Dave, along with his older brother Phil, grew up in Downey, California, birthplace of the Aerospace industry. Although it’s only 13 miles southeast of Los Angeles, it might as well be a world away. It was there Dave and Phil became obsessed with music at an early age. Thanks to the influence of an older cousin, they both became passionate students of Blues, Folk, R&B, Country and Rockabilly.
By the time they were teenagers they began haunting vintage record shops and making regular pilgrimages to the legendary Ash Grove club in L.A. It was there they soaked up the sounds of Rev. Gary Davis and Lightning Hopkins and even met heroes like Big Joe Turner and Muddy Waters. Although both attending college and Phil began teaching mathematics, their shared passion for music never wavered. By 1979, the brothers enlisted bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman and formed The Blasters.
The four-piece hit the fertile L.A. club scene and fell in with like-minded bands such as X, Gun Club and Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs. The Blasters pioneered a Roots Rock sound that incorporated their myriad influences, with an added jolt of Punk Rock energy. As lead singer, Phil was very much the “voice” of the band, but as guitarist and primary songwriter, Dave emerged as the band’s heart and soul.
Although they recorded their debut, American Music via the tiny Rollin’ Rock label, the Blasters soon joined their pals X and signed with L.A.’s premier indie label, Slash Records. Between 1981 and 1985, they released three critically acclaimed studio albums and a live EP. They ended up sharing stages with everyone from the Cramps and the Go-Go’s to Western Swing band, Asleep At The Wheel. They even wound up as openers for Queen on a leg of their West Coast tour.
Before splitting from the Blasters, Dave recorded with the Knitters, a Country/Folk side project spearheaded by several members of X. He officially quit the Blasters in 1986. Coincidently, guitarist Billy Zoom had recently left X, so Dave stepped in on guitar for their See How They Are Album. He also contributed a classic song, “4th Of July” to the X canon. But his true ambition was to sing and play his own songs, so in 1987, he embarked on a solo career.
In the ensuing years, Dave has released 12 critically acclaimed solo albums. He has also reunited a few times with The Blasters and made a second album with the Knitters. In the last decade he and Phil have collaborated on two records that featured interpretations of their favorite Blues classics.
Most recently, Dave and legendary Texas singer- songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore partnered to record 2018’s Downey To Lubbock. Dave’s down-home Downey grit was perfectly matched by Jimmie Dale’s Lubbock twangy Country-Soul. At the beginning of 2020, Dave revealed his most intriguing collaboration to date, the super group, The Third Mind. He joined forces with bassist Victor Krummenacher (Camper Van Beethoven), multi-instrumentalist David Immergluck (Camper, John Hiatt, Counting Crows) and drummer Michael Jerome (the Toadies, Richard Thompson). Inspired by Miles Davis’ improvisational jams, the four-piece just set up and played. The goal was “loud fun.” The result was a self-titled six song set that unfurled like an extended suite. Primarily instrumental, Dave sang lead on one track. It was a brilliant synthesis of disparate influences.
Had 2020 progressed logically, Dave would have spent most of the year on the road with Third Mind, flexing new musical muscles, extending boundaries and expanding horizons live. Instead, the COVID 45, um, 19 pandemic hit and the music industry nearly ground to a halt. Rather than sit around in his Underoos, binge-watching Bravo Television, he began digging through his archives. The result is From An Old Guitar, a collection of 16 rare and mostly unreleased songs that were recorded between 2000 and 2017.
There’s no rhyme or reason to this record, the unifying theme is these songs, mostly written by heroes and friends, are simply fun to sing and play. The album opens with a wry take on “Link Of Chain.” A rambling Rocker originally written and recorded by urbane Blues/Folk singer Chris Smither, Dave slightly recalibrates the rhythm and expands the instrumentation. Descending piano chords are bookended by swirly acoustic riffs, pinwheeling electric slide guitar, brawny bass lines and a propulsive shuffle rhythm. Dave’s warm tenor vocals are close, intimate and surprisingly seductive, as the lyrics offer a mystifying mea culpa; “Can’t you see, I can’t explain, I’m a little like a chain, just a ring around the other, running in and out again/Fly me like a kite line, smilin’ like a gold mine, I don’t need to do right, go to the end and that’ll do to hold me tonight.” On the break, courtly acoustic notes flutter around barbed electric slide riffs slipping into an audacious pas de deux.
Dave honors Country legends like Waylon Jennings and Marty Robbins by covering classics like “Amanda” and “Man Walks Among Us.” The former was a huge hit for Waylon, who, along with Willie Nelson were the architects of the Outlaw Country movement. While the original was a stripped-down lament, in Dave’s hands the song becomes a loping cowpoke Waltz. Beefed-up instrumentation includes two acoustic guitars, layered over electric licks, searing pedal steel, woozy accordion, stately piano, a walking bass line, all in ¾ time. Crooning tenderly to a do-right woman, he thanks her for her patience and forbearance; “It’s a measure of people who don’t understand, the pleasures of playing in a Rock & Roll band, I got my first guitar when I was 14, now I’m way past 40 and still wearing jeans.”
On the latter, Dave builds on the Gunfighter ballad paradigm Marty popularized back in the ‘50s. Blending willowy guitars, high lonesome pedal steel sturdy bass lines and a chunky backbeat, Dave’s solemn baritone soars over eco-spiritual lyrics like “Twenty feet high in the side of a cactus, I see a hole where the butcher bird stays, if mortals could choose, and heaven should ask us, here’s where I’d want to spend all my days/Soon will be gone all the desert, cities will cover each hill, today will just be a fond memory, man walks among us, be still, be still, man walks among us be still.”
Dave pays homage to several musical heroes here but puts his own stamp on each song. Take Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” faraway, almost ethereal, electric riffs are supplanted by slashing power chords, rumbling bass lines and a walloping big beat. Where His Bobness seemed mischievous, mixing Old Testament, Shakespeare and politics, Dave’s mien is equal parts laconic and sinister. Rattlesnake guitar riffs slither and strike on the break underscoring the song’s inherent menace.
Conversely, he rejiggers the late Bill Morrissey’s “Inside” without sacrificing the song’s tender fragility. Over a spare and soulful arrangement of tentative piano, supple guitar licks, quiescent bass and pliant rhythms, Dave’s wistful baritone is shadowed by plaintive harmonies. Lyrics paint a vivid portrait of a couple who are down on their luck; “Tonight it’s just you and me, furnished room black & white TV, the late movie runs till three, then it’s just you and me again/There’s no work just a lot of talk, I quit drinkin’ now I watch the clock, I count the minutes in the dark, till the sun cries up again.” The humor and heartbreak are here for the taking.
Dave streamlines the low-down Blues of Willie Dixon’s “Peace.” A stuttering shuffle rhythm connects with serpentine guitars, slinky bass lines, feathery keys and smoky harmonica. Lyrics like “You take one man’s heart and make another man’s live, you even go to the moon and come back thrilled, why you can crush a country in a matter of weeks, it don’t make sense that you can’t make peace,” resonate right now. Guitars sting, squall and skronk on the break, before the whole enterprise powers down.
Meanwhile, he adds some Country Rock flavor to the Sir Douglas quintet Tex-Mex Raver, “Dynamite Woman.” Slightly less shambolic than the original, it features strummy acoustic guitar, piquant electric riffs, rock-ribbed bass and weepy pedal steel over an accelerated Texas Two-Step beat.
Dave leaves his California comfort zone on a couple of tracks. Taking a pass at Link Davis’ slightly obscure “Albuquerque,” he swaps out the ‘50s cornpone arrangement of the original, recasting it as a swampy Psychedelic Blues Cha-Cha-Cha. Dave’s authoritative growl rides roughshod over Wah-wah guitars, spidery bass lines, wheezy harmonica and a whipcrack beat. The boogaloo guitar solo on the break phases and flanges in all the right ways.
Taking a bit of an Alabama getaway, he tackles Mickey Newbury’s sad-sack lament, “Mobile Blue.” Opening with some wobbly backwards guitar, Dave puts the pedal to the metal, stacking sparkly guitars, tensile bass, sawing fiddle and boisterous piano over a chugging four-on-the-floor rhythm. The arrangement truly takes the sting out of pity-party lyrics like “Aw, I left her back in Frisco, Lord she begged me not to go, I know somebody must have told her that I travel and I lie/They saw me drunk in Mobile, with some wired up chick from Jacksonville, and brother, did we look like we could fly.”
A few instrumentals dot the album, Dave steers the brassy Big Easy strut of “Perdido Street Blues” into a Gypsy Jazz hoedown. His “Variations On Earl Hooker’s Guitar Rhumba” is powered by slashing guitars, sprightly accordion, piano that shapeshifts from cosmopolitan, continental notes to rippling Honky-Tonk runs, loose-limbed bass lines, searing harmonica, pedal steel that lean tropically toward slack key, and a rattle-trap Rhumba beat. His own composition, “Krazy And Ignatz” is pared-down and playful. Fleet and frisky fretwork from Dave on his National Steel and Cindy Cashdollar on dobro unfurl as a lively duel.
The best tracks here are “On The Way Downtown” and “Beautiful City ‘Cross The River.” The former was written by old pal (and ex-Plimsouls frontman) Peter Case. The original version is a jangly Folk-Rocker but Dave’s take adds a patina of twang and grit. Ragged acoustic riffs are juxtaposed by lowing baritone guitar, cascading mandolin, plumy steel guitar, walking bass lines and a slapdash beat. Inspired by hometown sojourn, rueful lyrics revisit old ghosts and lost opportunities; “I’m goin’ out tonight, goin’ way downtown, where my friends who died still hang around, all that moonlight spillin’ on the ground and a season’s been here and gone.”
The latter is a rare Dave song that he originally recorded for the TV series “Justified.” It opens deceptively with dreamy harmonies from Christy McWilson before blistering electric guitars are unleashed, braced by stinging slide guitar, prowling bass lines, lilting Conjunto-flavored accordion and a pile-driving beat. The nuanced narrative is equal parts outlaw saga, redemption song and romantic elegy wed to some rollicking Roadhouse Blues. Dave rips a solo on the break that see-saws, squalls and scorches, followed by wily slide notes and mercurial accordion runs. The final couplet is suitably cinematic; “Now I didn’t hurt no one, I didn’t fire no gun, just stole what I could then I began to run/Drove three long days, straight to El Paso with a bagful of cash and visions of Mexico, now all I’m askin’ is if you will deliver me over the border line to that beautiful city ‘cross the river.”
The record amps up toward the end with a fervid duet between Dave and Christy McWilson on Bo Carter’s Delta Blues classic, “Who’s Been Here.” Then it slows slightly with metallic slink of “Signal Hill Blues.” Low down and dirty, the lyrics chronicle a carnal, um, interlude between a 23-year-old Dave and a woman of the world who offers to show him “a good time, up on top of Signal Hill.” Dave’s eloquent and economical prose echoes L.A. antecedents like James M. Cain, John Fante and Nathanael West in its lyricism and specificity. As sidewinder electric guitars coil around abraded bass lines and a rock steady beat, he delivers this reluctantly heartfelt denouement; “Well, after she passed out, I just stared down at the city lights and thought of all the dreams and broken hearts lost in the night/And listened to her breathe soft and sweet, like a child until the sun rose cold and lonely on top of Signal Hill.” It’s a razor-sharp end to a brilliant record.
These songs were recorded at different times in places with a plethora of talented players like guitarists Danny Ott, Chris G. Miller, Chuck Mead, Rick Shea and Mike Daly. Holding down the bottom were bassists David J. Carpenter, Gregory Boaz, Brad Fordham, David Jackson, Bob Glaub and Dave Row. Drummers included Don Heffington, Steve Mugalian, Bobby Lloyd Hicks and Lisa Pankratz. Both Joe Terry and Wyman Reese played piano, along with Dale Spaulding and Jack Rudy on harmonica. Bradley Kearns tackled fiddle, Skip Edwards added accordion and Cindy Cashdollar was featured on dobro. Backing vocals were provided by Cindy Wasserman, Rick Shea, Danny Ott and Christy McWilson.
Special mention must be accorded to old compadres like Jazz guitar great, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz on guitar and pedal steel. Then there’s Blaster Bros. like bassist John Bazz, drummer Bill Bateman and pianist Gene Taylor. It’s also heartening to hear gone, but not forgotten pals like Amy Farris on violin and the late great Chris Gaffney on accordion, vocals and piano. By rights, “Old Guitars; Rare And Unreleased Recordings” should feel like a cobbled together mixed bag. A thrown together assemblage of odds and sods. But this album is surprisingly cohesive, held together by impeccable arrangements, muscular instrumentation, and Dave’s heartfelt vocals. Phil may be the Alvin with natural singing ability, but Dave’s flinty style has become richer and more nuanced since he stepped up to the mic back in 1987. Rare Guitars is by turns rough and rowdy, tough and tender.