Dave and Phil Alvin are Master Blasters: Concert Review

Jill Merrill Trakin
Brothers reunite and it feels so good with a tribute to American music, which includes a nod to childhood inspiration Big Bill Broonzy.

Collaborating on their first album together in 30 years, the two sibling rivals celebrate with a dynamic set of roots rock that crosses over from punk and rock to blues, soul and country.

Dave Alvin and older brother Phil have had a sibling rivalry since going their separate ways in 1986, with the former embarking on a solo career and the latter continuing with The Blasters, the band they formed in 1979 to celebrate American Music (the title of their debut album) as young men from the blue-collar town of Downey, California.

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Despite occasional reunions in the interim, the bond between the two was solidified two years ago when Phil almost died in Spain of a serious respiratory illness, and their reconciliation has been marked by the recent release of Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy, on Yep Rock Records, their first joint album in 30 years. It’s a tribute to the country-blues of one of the pair’s earliest influences, the Arkansas native who landed in Chicago, where he learned to play guitar and produced such signature tunes as “Saturday Night Rub” and “Big Bill’s Blues.”

Taking the stage at a sold-out Troubadour, which greeted them like returning heroes, the brothers Alvin were in fine form, accompanied by their crack band, The Guilty Ones, including ace electric guitar foil Chris Miller, bassist Brad Fordham and drummer Lisa Pankratz, who give Dave and Phil a solid backdrop to their family ties.

Starting out with a pair of songs from the Broonzy songbook, including “All by Myself” and ”Key to the Highway,” Phil’s supple soul shout, which gave the Blasters their distinctive R&B edge, provides the perfect foil to Dave’s less stylized low-register croon.  Blowing a nifty harp solo on the latter — Dave recounts how Phil took harmonica lessons from the great Sonny Terry — the elder Alvin jokes about “everything I forgot,” before leaning into the instrument for a spirited jam, as his younger brother provides some nifty picking.

Throughout the show, Dave kvells, bursting with pride, if not awe that Phil has survived to once more join him on-stage. The pair pay tribute to the “blues yodeler,” Jimmie Rodgers, with a cover of “Never No Mo’ Blues,” from the Blasters’ debut album, Phil providing the spirited yodel-ay-he-hoos.

Dave dedicates “King of California” to his mom, and celebrates his own status as a fourth generation native with this stirring tribute to the Golden State from his solo album of the same name, with Chris Miller’s Marlboro Man leads adding a spaghetti western quality to the rendition.

Phil’s in classic soul man mode for Broonzy’s “I Feel So Good” (“…like balling the jack”), followed by “How You Want It Done,” which Dave calls “the first rockabilly record,” offering his own twangy guitar solo to prove the point.

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“Southern Flood Blues” has a resonance that hits home today, as Dave references the current SoCal drought, but Broonzy’s lyrics evoke the Hurricane Katrina disaster, as the Alvins duet on guitar and harp.

A rendition of The Blasters’ classic “Border Radio” mimics exactly the sound that might’ve come out of one of those very broadcasts some 50 years ago when the likes of Wolfman Jack were spinning songs into the night, while Dave describes “Trouble Bound” as a tune about being “86’ed out of a bar… a Spanish bar,” the band stopping and starting on a dime.

“Johnny Ace is Dead” is an example of Dave at his story-telling best, a tale of the night the R&B star lost a game of Russian roulette on Christmas night in 1954. “Now we’ve all done that once or twice,” jokes Dave. “Phil did it three times, but you can’t hit what isn’t there.” The elder Alvin smiles sheepishly, the brotherly jab signifying their joy at being able to make music together after all these years.

Dave and cohort Miller provide some punkish energy to Big Bill’s  “Truckin' Little Woman,” while the Alvins’ version of “What’s Up With Your Brother?,” originally recorded by the pair for Dave’s 2007 Eleven Eleven album, finds the two playfully competing for the spotlight, a spirited brother-on-brother duel that takes the gospel spiritual vibe into the immediacy of the here and now.

Phil goes all “Old Testament,” according to his bro, on the traditional folk song “Samson and Delilah,” based on Blind Willie Johnson’s “If I Had My Way, I Would Tear This Building Down,” a staple of the Grateful Dead, taking it to church before “Dry River,” a tribute to the San Gabriel, which ran through their hometown of Downey. “They were once wild, free rivers that roamed wherever they wanted,” mused Dave, “until they were confined into channels.” The band took things down all the way to a Grateful Dead-like quiet, leading into a Miller slide guitar solo and a spirited Pankratz drum solo.  A rousing “One Bad Stud,” from the Blasters’ 2002 live Trouble Bound album and the 1984 Streets of Fire movie soundtrack, brings the set to a climax with a soaring Dave Alvin-Miller guitar duet. James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please,” introduced by Dave as a song from an album purchased at a Paramount flea market for a quarter, leads into a soaring “Marie Marie,” a vicious slide guitar solo from Chris Miller as Dave points the guitar from his hip like a gunslinger in a cowboy hat, shooting the audience down in flames. “Fourth of July,” the song Dave wrote for X, is given a full-on Allmans/Dead jam, with the brothers once more duking it out on guitar and harp, interpolated with “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and closing with the apt “So Long Baby Goodbye,” from the band’s self-titled 1981 sophomore album, ringing in our ears, bringing to a raucous close what was truly a night of reconciliation and a celebration of brotherly love.

Set list:

All by Myself (Big Bill Broonzy cover)
Key to the Highway (Big Bill Broonzy cover)
Never No Mo’ Blues (Jimmie Rodgers cover)
King of California (Dave Alvin solo)
I Feel So Good (Big Bill Broonzy cover)
How You Want It Done (Big Bill Broonzy cover)
Southern Flood Blues (Big Bill Broonzy cover)
Border Radio (The Blasters)
Trouble Bound (The Blasters)
Johnny Ace Is Dead (Dave Alvin solo)
Truckin’ Little Woman (Big Bill Broonzy cover)
What’s Up With Your Brother? (Dave Alvin solo)
Samson and Delilah (traditional)
Dry River (Dave Alvin solo)
One Bad Stud (The Blasters)

Please Please Please (James Brown)
Marie Marie (The Blasters)
Fourth of July (X)
So Long Baby Goodbye (The Blasters)