By Eleni P. Austin

“Midnight down in Tucson, or any town along the highway, crank up the amps, whisper a prayer and be thankful for every damn day, cause the odds are stacked against us, but somehow we still survive, standing strong, playing proud, cause that’s where the blind owl still flies” That’s Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore chronicling life on the road on “Blind Owl,” a cut off their new album.

Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore have been legendary figures on the Roots-Rock scene for decades, as well as close compadres. But they didn’t begin to collaborate officially until their 2018 album, Downey To Lubbock. Critically acclaimed and commercially successful, it landed on plenty year-end Top 10 lists and hit #1 on the Billboard Blues chart, #2 on The Heatseekers Album chart, #12 on the Independent Albums chart, #15 on the Folk chart and #41 on the Country chart.

Born in 1955, Dave and his older brother Phil grew up in the staid bedroom community Downey. The L.A. suburb was the birthplace of the Apollo Space program and probably best known as the hometown of brother and sister duo, The Carpenters. Thanks to a couple of musically savvy cousins, the Alvin Brothers became passionate fans of Blues, Folk, Jazz, Rockabilly and R&B long before they hit puberty.


During their teens, the brothers made regular pilgrimages to the legendary Ash Grove club in L.A. Not only did they see people like Rev. Gary Davis and Lightnin’ Hopkins, they met icons like Muddy Waters and Big Joe Turner. Who in turn, befriended these young Blues enthusiasts. Even as they both pursued higher education and Phil began teaching mathematics, their need to play music live proved irresistible. In 1979, they enlisted drummer Bill Bateman and bassist John Bazz and formed The Blasters. Hitting the fertile L.A. club scene, they began making a name for themselves. Their hybrid sound managed to distill all their seminal influences and still feel fresh, by adding a jolt of pure Punk energy. Phil was a natural lead singer and became the very recognizable “voice” of the band. But Dave emerged as a protean guitarist and songwriter, essentially, The Blasters’ heart and soul.

Championed by the city’s premier Punk band, X, The Downey four-piece inked a deal with the well-respected indie label, Slash Records. All told, The Blasters released four excellent long-players and a live EP between 1980 and 1985. Dave left the band, and following a brief stint in X, he embarked on a solo career in 1987.

Since then, he’s released 12 critically acclaimed solo albums. He’s also managed to reconnect with The Blasters a few times and collaborate with his big brother, recording a couple of albums of Blues favorites. More recently, he corralled like-minded musician pals like Victor Krummenacher, David Immergluck, Michael Jerome and Jesse Sykes, to chart new musical vistas as the Jazz-Psych supergroup, The Third Mind.

A decade older than Dave, Jimmie Dale’s musical path has been more circuitous and less prolific. Growing up in the Texas panhandle, he was born in Armadillo and raised in Lubbock. His earliest influences included Hank Williams, Sr., Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, as well as hometown heroes like Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings. By the ‘60s, he began soaking up the music of Bob Dylan and The Beatles.

Along with fellow future Texas troubadours Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, he founded The Flatlanders. Early progenitors of a burgeoning Country/Folk Rock sound, they released one well-received, but poorly distributed album in 1972. It was available in only one format, eight track (for reals). Much like the equally obscure Big Star went on to influence bands like R.E.M., the Bangles and The Replacements, the Flatlanders’ debut became a touchstone for future acts like Uncle Tupelo and The Jayhawks.

Once Jimmie Dale, Butch and Joe went their separate ways, he left music in the dust and embarked on a spiritual quest. First joining an ashram in New Orleans before relocating to Denver where he worked as a janitor in a synagogue.

After a 15-year musical sabbatical, he veered off his devotional path and launched a solo career. Throughout the years, he has released eight studio albums and periodically reunited with The Flatlanders. In certain circles, he’s best known as “Smokey,” the pacifist bowler in the Coen Brothers’ cult classic film, The Big Lebowski. His character draws the ire of fellow bowler Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), when his toe steps over the demarcation line (“Smokey, this is not ‘Nam, this is bowling, there are rules”).

Dave and Jimmie Dale first became acquainted when they toured together as part of a singer-songwriter caravan that included Katy Moffat, Joe Ely, Steve Young and Lucinda Williams. They quickly bonded over a shared affinity for the Blues. It was then they realized that without knowing it, their paths had occasionally crossed at a few of those landmark Ash Grove shows. In 2017, they teamed up for a series of live. dates. Pleased with the positive response, they hit the studio and recorded Downey To Lubbock. More touring followed (pre and post-pandemic) and now their back with their sophomore effort, Texicali.

The album opens with the one-two punch of “Borderline” and “Southwest Chief,” two songs that deftly display their songwriting prowess. Jimmie Dale is up first on the former. Tentative strummed guitar chords give way to a walloping big beat, soaring electric riffs, buoyant bass, shimmering Hammond B3 and a percussive conga kick. His reedy Texas tenor echoing Lone Star forerunners like Willie Nelson and the Singing Brakeman himself, Jimmie Rodgers. The lyrics paint a bleak, albeit accurate, portrait of what the evening news refers to as “the crisis at the border”: “Well, I headed to the borderland, where the home guard went insane, no use trying to work with people who can’t tell fire from rain…the brown girl from the battleground had just met me halfway, the border guard let her pass, but said you cannot stay/She gazed upon the mountain above and she reached out her hand, then she let go with all her might, and loved the borderland.” The lyrical tsuris is leavened by the impossibly sunny melody and arrangement. Across two instrumental breaks honeyed guitar solos dart between swirly organ runs.

Dave takes charge on the latter. Delicate, finger-picked guitar is tethered to slap-back bass, courtly Harmonium and a chugging, locomotive rhythm. He wraps his sandpaper-y vocals around lyrics that are part travelogue and part rueful recollection: “Racing through cornfields and nameless small towns, porch lights coming on as the sun comes down, folks I’ve known and loved keep crossing my mind, as the Chief keeps pushing and making up for lost time/Remembering my friend Bill Morrissey, we were going going to write a song together, but it never came to be, ‘Make it a Blues,” he said, ‘sweet, tough and sincere, cause we only come round once and then we disappear.’” Smoky harmonica notes sidle around the chorus before linking up with a stinging slide guitar solo on the break.

As with their first collaboration, Dave and Jimmie Dale salt the mix with a few telling covers. They completely reconfigure Stonewall Jackson’s “Why I’m Walking.” What was originally a Countrified lament is now a spiky Cha-Cha-Cha powered by slashing guitars, churchy piano, barbed bass lines and some percolating percussion. The gritty Bar Band arrangement belies Sad-Sack lyrics like: “With an old love on your mind, life’s not worth livin,’ I breathe her name with every breath I’m breathin,’ why could I never see how much she meant to me, I’ve got her sweet love on my mind that’s why I’m walkin’. Dave and guitarist Chris Miller put their stank all over the break, unleashing a series of lickety-split licks that echo pioneers like Dick Dale and Link Wray.

Conversely, the pair flip the script on Brownie McGhee’s “Betty And Dupree.” They expand on the bare-bones original by braiding soft acoustic and electric arpeggios and hitching them to spidery bass lines and a shuffle rhythm. Dave and Jimmie trade verses and their voices intertwine on the chorus as they unfurl the desperate story of these two strivers: “Betty told Dupree she wanted a diamond ring, Betty told Dupree she wanted a diamond ring, Dupree said for Betty, for you, I’d do almost anything/Well, Dupree got a pistol, it was a forty-four, Dupree got a pistol, it was a forty-four, to get that ring for Betty, Dupree had to rob a jewelry store.” This gentle rendition echoes the Folk flavors of “Corrina, Corrina,” a traditional favorite that has gone through what Buddy Mitchell might characterize as “them changes”

They add a soupcon of swagger to Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine.” Strutting electric riffs collide with bendy slide guitar, sinewy bass lines and a hopscotch beat. Jimmie Dale’s high lonesome moan wraps around a catalogue of woes until he can only exclaim “Lordy lord, lordy lordy lord, lordy lord, lordy lord.” Even as he appeals to a higher power, his entreaties are eclipsed by the scuzzy, swampy guitars that cut loose on the break.

Finally, they offer up a wistful version of Josh White’s “Down The 285.” Filigreed acoustic notes are wed to flinty bass lines, shuddery keys and a tick-tock beat. Jimmie Dale and Dave trade verses that intimate the end is nigh: “The moon’s dropping fast in the south, the moon’s dropping fast in the south, she’s a good ole muse if you pay your dues, and I can’t take my eyes from the moon/Well, the dawn’s chasing us from behind, the dawn’s chasing us from behind, and I will not cower in my darkest hour, cause I can’t take my eyes off the moon.” A keening electric guitar solo navigates each bend in the road.

The best songs here hinge on the Yin Yang chemistry between the pair. Jimmie Dale’s vibe is more contemplative on “Trying To Be Free.” Shivery guitars, lowing bass and gossamer keys cocoon his tremulous croon as he offers a Zen approach to romantic commitment: “And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t want somehow to be all alone, but if you think I’m holding you to anything you don’t want to do, I’m ready now to go out on my own/And I’ll just keep telling you that I’m not gonna tell you what you should do, no, love it’s not because I don’t care, if I lose you here perhaps I’ll find you there.” Mac Davis might’ve just said “Baby, Baby, don’t get hooked on me.” The lyrics’ gentle kiss-off achieves lift-off on the break as Motown-ish, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” guitar riffs ride roughshod atop woozy Hammond B3 and stately piano figures.

While “Trying….” injects a bit of Detroit magic into the proceedings, “Roll On” locks into a Blues-Reggae Riddim that seems weird on paper, but truly grooves. Staccato guitars bob and weave between slinky bass lines, jittery, morse-code percussion, and a wash of Hammond B3. Jimmie Dale’s mien is laid-back as he unspools a series of non-sequitur seduction lines like “Blue skies have gone away, can’t you remember what you called me, you wore the rose, I ran in circles, no one knew you had my number…a fence of wood, gates of metal, trails of perfume in the twilight, stars collide and dry leaves rustle, your lips are wet and filled with wishes.” Dave’s skittery, Blues-inflected riffage ping-pongs through the arrangement, careening through the break, with a scorched earth solo.

Dave is a little more rough and tumble, but no less tender. The aforementioned Roadhouse Blues of “Blind Owl,” pays homage to the peripatetic existence of a working musician. It’s also dedicated to Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, who, along with Bob “Bear” Hite were the sonic architects for the late ‘60s Blues-Rock band, Canned Heat. Growling guitars tangle with prowling bass lines, simmering keys, searing harmonica and a gutbucket beat. Fittingly, melody shares a whisper of musical DNA with Canned Heat’s epochal hit, “On The Road Again.” The cogent opening verses sketch out a rowdy scene: “Midnight in Kansas City, there’s a hot summer rain falling down, another gig, another bar room, way on the outskirts of town, folks are dancing and sweating, somewhere between salvation, and when the morning sun rises, I’ll be back on the road again.” The expansive chorus raises a Honky-Tonk toast to fallen heroes and friends: “Heading out for the next joint, I’m gonna make this guitar growl, I’m gonna blow the roof off it baby, I’m gonna make this harmonica howl, then I’ll jump the boogie for Big Joe and play the Blues for the Blind Owl. A strafing guitar solo ricochets across wily harmonica runs and pliant piano on the break.

A title like “Death Of The Last Stripper,” seems ripe for a blackly comic saga, but in reality, it’s a poignant elegy to someone existing on the margins of society. Feathery acoustic riffs partner with willowy electric licks, lowing bass, descending piano notes and a brushed backbeat. Much like Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley,” the lyrics offer a “just the facts, ma’am” reportage, rendering it all the more mournful: “We gave her clothes to the Goodwill, except for one pretty dress, tried to make her face up, so she’d look her best/Got carnations at the Safeway, there were no roses there, had no money for a preacher. so we just said a prayer.” It’s a gallant farewell to a stranger.

The album closes with “We’re Still Here,” a Shaggy Dog saga that owes as much to Stephen Sondheim as it does to Big Joe Turner and Johnny Cash. Twitchy guitars are matched by knotty bass lines, Boogie-Woogie piano and a chugging backbeat. Frisky lyrics offer a gimlet-eyed take on life’s myriad ups and downs: “If you’ve never gone crazy, you’ve never been in love, uncomplicated romance is unheard of, love’s a tangled tale of hope and fear, but I’m willing to try, because we’re still here/Well, the music business man with the music business smile said the songs I wrote were old and going out of style, but I’ve been boppin’ these Blues for over 40 years, hell, I don’t know where he is now, but we’re still here.” Sparkly, Honky-Tonk piano shimmies through the break, just ahead of incendiary guitar and Psychedelic keys. It’s a playful finish to a swell record.

Dave and Jimmie Dale were ably assisted by Dave’s crack backing band, The Guilty Ones, which incudes Chris Miller on guitar, Lisa Pankratz on drums, Brad Fordham on bass and Bukka Allen on keys.

What began as something of a Busman’s Holiday between old pals, has now taken on a life of it’s of it’s own. Successfully sidestepping the dreaded “sophomore slump,” Texicali is by turns agile, rough-hewn, ornery and elegant. Texas Twang and Cali Blues coalesce, framing plaintive laments, nuanced narratives and rollicking work-outs. They’ve done all the hard work. All you have to do, is sit back and listen.