There is one thing a person gathers when talking with Grammy-Award winning roots rocker Dave Alvin-he eat, sleeps and breaths American music. You can call what he plays rockabilly, soul-laced rock, doo-wop, bluegrass, boogie-woogie, delta blues, honky tonk, country, rock and roll or west coast jazz; at the end of the day it is American music.
The one-time lead guitarist of the legendary LA rhythm and blues rock band The Blasters has reinvented himself time and time again over the course of his three decade career as he has traversed the encyclopedia of blues hybrid genres. He has persevered through band breakups, illness and death because at the heart of his art form and avocation is the blues. And how does that help one survive?
“This is my religion. This is my church,” he proclaims frankly. “You are going to struggle (in this business) but I was mentored in that struggle. The old blues guys taught me survival tips. The bottom one is to do this out of the love for the music.”
Following the words of some of the legends who schooled him as a youngster (names such as Big Joe Turner, Little Milton and others), one can see and hear this love in every one of Alvin’s song.
Dave Alvin and his latest band, The Guilty Women, bring their American roots music to the Beachland Ballroom on Thur., Sept 9. Alvin has played before with the Blasters and the country punk group The Knitters.
It was two years ago that the lives of Alvin and members of his band The Guilty Men were besieged with sadness over the passing of band mate, accordion player Chris Gaffney. Gaffney, also Alvin’s best friend, lost his battle with cancer. So Alvin recruited several area West coast musicians to produce a tribute album to Gaffney entitled Man of Somebody’s Dream; A Tribute to Chris Gaffney. That release came out the same day as Alvin and his then new band’s debut self-titled debut, Dave Alvin and The Guilty Women.
The Guilty Women consists of steel and lap steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar, electric guitarist Nina Gerber, violinist/mandolin player Laurie Lewis, lead vocalist Christy McWilson, bass player Sarah Brown and drummer Lisa Pankratz.
The other member of the band, the late Amy Faris, was a fixture of the Austin, Texas scene and an accomplished violin and viola player, had done work with Alvin prior to the band. In 2009, after an illness, Faris passed away, leaving yet another void in Alvin’s life and those of his bandmates.
“Chris was my closest friend, you know, and spiritual advisor,” Alvin said. “That was the toughest. With Amy, it was extremely sad. One of the selfish reasons I put The Guilty Women together was because I missed Chris so much on stage that in order for me to continue doing what I did, I had to do it differently… This was my way of curing my melancholy over losing my best friend (starting The Guilty Women band), and suddenly I lose a very dear friend who lived a couple blocks away from me.”
Alvin and dozens of other musicians have performed tribute shows and recordings for both Gaffney and Faris with proceeds going to the non-profit Hungry For Music, whose mission is to inspire underprivileged children with creativity through musical instrument, concert and workshop donations.
As far as the remaining Guilty Women, Alvin was no stranger to the group prior to their entry into Alvin’s touring and recording troupe.
“Everybody in the band, I’d worked with in one way or another except for Cindy (Cashdollar) and I had produced many recordings that many of the girls have played on from the past.”
Although devastated by the passing of his good friend and band mate, Alvin, who had played the popular San Francisco Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, gathered this ensemble of female talent and they hit the stage. They played so well, Yep Roc Records (Alvin’s label) co-founder Glen Dicker told Alvin an album had to be made based on the The Guilty Women initial, one-off performance.
“I’m really lucky. I have always been able to play with great musicians, whether it was as a kid or with my brother and the guys in The Blasters,” Alvin expresses with gratitude. “The Guilty Women all came from slightly different roots music backgrounds. Some of them had never played together.
“It just meshed beautifully and over the year of touring this is sort of a core band of Lisa, Sarah, Cindy and Christy and I. Then Nina and Laurie joined. It has become a little muscular, ass-kicking outfit.”
It was back in 1979 that Phil and Dave Alvin got their roots rock band The Blasters started. Born and raised in Downey, California. The Alvin brothers were raised on classic blues music of the likes of Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James and dozens more. The Alvin brothers witnessed the rise and fall of many famous and semi-famous musicians of a bygone era. They knew of the mortality early on.
“When you grow up like Phil and I did befriending old blues singers, you get use to mortality early,” Alvin acknowledges. “A lot of the guys split when we were still kids.”
One of those legends who was around long enough to be called a Blaster was sax great Lee Allen who made a name for himself in New Orleans and then the west coast.
The Blasters were a talented group that included piano player Gene Taylor, bassist John Bazz and veteran drummer Billy Bateman to round out its solid line-up. The Blaster put out four studio albums and despite receiving critical acclaim the country over and even in the UK, they garnered little mainstream success. Coming out of the LA scene where bands like X, Black Flag, The Flesheaters and the Minutemen were creating a punk scene, The Blasters bonded with their punk brothers.
By 1986, Dave left for a solo career, occasionally coming back for reunion shows and tours. Alvin also played with X and the X country offshoot The Knitters. His first two albums had a country rock flavor to them and it was on these releases that Alvin, who did limited vocals on The Blaster records, cut his vocal teeth. After a serious bout of meningitis, Alvin hopped back on the horse using royalties from Dwight Yoakam’s success off Alvin’s song “Long White Cadillac”.
Over the next eight years Alvin wrote and recorded a series of harder edged roots rock and blues albums, such as Romeo’s Escape, Blues Blvd and Museum of Heart. By 1993, Alvin turned down the electric and tuned up his acoustic sound with the releases of King of California, Interstate City and Blackjack Dave over the next five years.
In 2000, Alvin finally got the recognition that had eluded him on a more international level when his Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land release of American roots music classics.
It was Interstate City and Out in California that Alvin recruited the talents of best friend accordion player Chris Gaffney and five other friends. The band would put out a few live albums. In 2008 after battling cancer Gaffney passes away leaving a hole in The Guilty Men lineup that Alvin felt could not be filled.
“I love to collaborate because I am a totally self-trained musician, so that’s how I learn,” admits Alvin, now 54. “Whether it’s sitting at the feet of Lighting Hopkins or watching how Laurie Lewis frames a song, I’m watching everybody.”
So, while Alvin makes a comfortable living playing American roots music, much like his blues teachers, he never was in it to make a fortune. He knew that to stick with true roots music, there was no fortune to be had.
Another facet of Alvin’s life that resonates is his love-hate relationship with his older brother Phil. While The Blasters still perform with a different guitarist Keith Wyatt, there are occasional Alvin brothers’ get-togethers on stage.
Despite not being one who lets the cool cat out of the brand new bag, Alvin alluded to a future brotherly reunion of sorts. On the next Alvin solo project, a duet entitled “What’s Up with Your Brother?” sees the siblings crooning together in what Alvin calls “a blues rocker.”
Regardless of what is around the bend for Alvin, one thing is certain, he will be continuing to hone is skill as a roots guitarist. Whether he rejoins his old mates as a Blaster from the past or not remains to be seen. Many fans would love that to happen. But if it doesn’t there will be no shortage of quality musicians to blame, namely a dozen or so Guilty Men and Guilty Women who are near family for this man who is at the root of American music.