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Master Blaster

It took many years, a deadly health scare and the combined love of Big Bill Broonzy before The Blasters brothers Dave and Phil Alvin reunited for a new album. We get the lowdown from Dave...

I­t’s June 2012. Dave Alvin, the former guitarist of The Blasters, the R&B roots band he founded with his older brother Phil Alvin in 1979, is on the phone to Maria, a hospital doctor in Valencia. “She informed me that Phil had stopped breathing, not once but twice,” Dave Alvin tells The Blues. “It was incredibly serious, he was technically dead, but the doctor got on top of him and pounded him back to life twice. It put everything in perspective, how time is limited, how you never know when it’s all going to end. I realised I wanted to get back in the studio with Phil again. Once he had recovered, I rang him and asked, ‘Do you want to record some Big Bill Broonzy covers with me?’ He said, ‘Yes.’”

The pair holed up for two three-day sessions in December 2013 and January 2014, at Winslow Court Studios in Los Angeles, an old Foley studio from the 30s, previously used for movie sound effects. There, they recorded the 12 songs that make up Common Ground: Dave Alvin And Phil Alvin Play And Sing The Songs Of Big Bill Broonzy. It is arguably the Alvin brothers’ best work to date. Phil and Dave’s vocals are emotionally nuanced, Phil’s finger pickin’ intricate; Dave’s production empathic, his guitar-playing energetic, his arrangements inventive. Their backing band – two different ones including drummer Lisa Pankratz and bassist Brad Fordham, both members of Dave’s solo band, plus former Blasters pianist Gene Taylor and sessioneer drummer Don Heffington and bassist Bob Glaub – execute their parts with aplomb.

“We just wanted to get it done,” says Dave. “We set everyone up in a circle like they used to at Sun Studios and Chess Records and we just went for it. The songs were recorded live in one or two takes. We listened to the songs on records, then we rehearsed them, then we bashed them out. I didn’t want to have to think, ‘What will blues purists think? What will folk fans think? What will rock‘n’roll fans think?’ It wasn’t about authenticity. If you want authenticity, go out and buy a Big Bill Broonzy record. It was really just about recording with my brother Phil again. Our initial intention was to do an EP, but after doing a couple of songs, it was going so well, we decided to turn it into an album.”   

The siblings have a well-documented volatile relationship and this is their first album together since The Blasters’ 1985 original line-up swansong, Hard Line. “I was a lot stupider and Phil was a lot louder in his opinions when we were younger. I didn’t want to listen and learn,” Dave says by way of explanation. “It made for some very intense and cathartic live shows in The Blasters, though. But I knew if I brought a bunch of songs I’d written to a studio and asked my brother to record them with me now, there’d have been a fight. ‘I don’t like this one,’ or ‘I’m not singing that line,’ or ‘I’m not playing that part.’ The only thing I knew we wouldn’t argue about was Big Bill Broonzy. Hence the record’s title, Common Ground. It’s where we come together. It’s square one. There was nothing to fight about outside of ‘Am I playing the guitar part right?’ As for the tracks we covered, we picked the ones we loved, the ones that showed the breadth of Big Bill Broonzy’s songwriting, and the ones that were fun to play.” 

Liberties were taken by Dave. “I took the lyrics from All By Myself, which are great, and put them to the music from Long Tall Mama, which is also great, and it kinda turned out well.” Unorthodox instructions were also given. “We weren’t sure if we should do Key To The Highway as it had been done so many times before by other musicians, but we decided to do it and I told the rhythm section not to play what they thought they wanted to play but to play like they were Big Bill Broonzy’s thumb on his right hand, because there is a unique rhythm to Big Bill’s thumb playing and they’re going thump, thump, thump, and it adds a real swing to the track.”

The pair first discovered Big Bill Broonzy in their early teens. “By this time we already had a broad musical education. We had Lightnin’ Hopkins records, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee records, Sonny Boy Williamson records, but Big Bill Broonzy was something else. I remember the day Phil brought home this album by him. He looked so sharp on the cover: he was wearing a suit and a fedora, he was part gangster, part pimp, part guitar player. Then Phil put it on the record player and his voice, this expressive tenor, it invited you in, it was so dramatic. And his songwriting, on songs like Just A Dream, was so vivid in its imagery as well. Then there was his eclecticism; there were songs that were just him and his guitar, then songs with him and his guitar and piano, bass and drums, then songs with him, his guitar, piano, bass, drums, trumpet and sax. He knew who he was and where he came from, but he was liberated by that and never afraid to experiment and go anywhere he wanted with his music. His eclecticism gave me and my brother permission to not be bound by any genre. Soon after discovering Big Bill Broonzy, we got to know Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker and Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson and it may not have been our first or second question, but our third question was always of them, ‘Did you know Big Bill Broonzy?’”

Brought up in Downey, California, Dave and Phil’s mum was a vaudeville dancer and contortionist, and their dad had sung in a harmony quartet in the late 20s and early 30s and also played violin. “They weren’t what you’d call music hounds, but we certainly heard a lot of different things playing at home,” says Dave. “Our dad was a first generation Polish immigrant, he had polka records and Slavic records. He was also a union organiser so we listened to the Almanac Singers and Joe Glazer singing union songs. Mum was fourth generation Californian, she had a lot of swing music.” Older cousins inspired and opened up important musical pathways, too. “One loved R&B, another was a folkie who played banjo and guitar and had records by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee; another cousin played country and western. He lived on a ranch and he loved George Jones and Buck Owens. We also had the radio playing country and western, R&B and rock‘n’roll. There was a lot going on.”

The US city of Downey, located 21 kilometres outside of downtown Los Angeles and with a population of 111,772, gave birth to the Apollo space program and the easy listening brother-and sister-duo The Carpenters. “It became known for The Carpenters and that became a real bugbear for us,” groans Dave. For the Alvins, it was its namesake label, Downey Records, founded by Bill Wenzel and his son Jack, that impressed most. Bill and Jack started out in 1958 running Wenzel’s Music Town on Lakewood Boulevard, selling hi-fi equipment and records, and by 1962 they had converted part of the shop into a studio where they recorded a string of surf instrumental classics including Dave’s favourite, Boss by the Rumblers (the band were named after Link Wray’s Rumble) – although it was The Chantays’ Pipeline that would put Downey Records on the musical map. “We’d hang out in the shop, searching for 78s. It was great: we’d be like, ‘Wow, we don’t have this Big Bill one on Vocalion, let’s get it.’ Then we started following blues artists around, we were like deadheads, but we were Big Joe Turner heads and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ heads instead,” says Dave. “We must have seen Lightnin’ Hopkins 30 or more times. From the age of 14, my brother had a band and he wound up backing a lot of these guys in and around Los Angeles. As I was younger, I was the tag along, I’d just go along for the experience. When we started The Blasters, we realised we had been mentored. These guys had apprenticed us, they had handed the blues down to us.”

With bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman, Dave and Phil formed The Blasters and quickly built a following based on their thrilling live shows. “I got interested in punk rock and the records that came over from the UK by the Sex Pistols and The Clash,” says Dave. “I liked the fact that punk rock was noisy, you didn’t know what you were going to get, and that anything could happen.”

For Dave, there was a real connection between the blues he’d been listening to growing up and punk. “We’d go to the local punk shows, see groups like X, The Cramps, Black Flag. It reminded me of when we used to sneak into blues clubs underage like the Ash Grove [a folk club situated on LA’s Melrose Avenue which Dave paid tribute to on his 2004 solo album, Ashgrove.] There was that same sense of the underground, of a community between the band and their audience, it had a similar vibe. But we realised with our blues background, we couldn’t become full-on-attitude punk rockers. I had a tendency to push the beat, so we thought we could maybe play a little too fast and it worked. So we took a lot from those old blues guys we loved and adapted it to the punk crowd, coming up with our own thing.”  

“Our own thing” was captured over four albums spanning 1980 to 1985. The first, American Music, set their manifesto with its exciting mix of blues, rockabilly, rock‘n’roll and country originals like the storming Barn Burning. Covers, meanwhile, were raucous and irreverent, delivered with rowdy gusto and included Billy Boy Arnold’s I Wish You Would, Bill Haley’s Real Rock Drive and Jimmie Rodgers’ Never No More Blues

Its 1981 self-titled follow up featured pianist Gene Taylor, baritone saxist Steve Berlin, plus tenor saxist Lee Allen, the latter famed for his work with Little Richard, Lloyd Price and Fats Domino. The album was the same blend of furious Dave-penned pieces (Marie Marie, later covered by Shakin’ Stevens in 1982, and This Is It) and re-imaginings (Bo Diddley’s I Love You So and Little Willie John’s Rudy Toombs-scribed I’m Shakin’.) 

Non-Fiction in 1983 and 1985’s swansong Hard Line, the latter most notable for including gospel backing vocals by the Jordanaires, and Colored Lights, penned and co-produced by Blasters fan John Cougar Mellencamp, meanwhile, were well-meaning, but ultimately failed attempts at mainstream success. Shortly after, the band went their separate ways. 

“It wasn’t just Phil and I who fought in the group. We’d all grown up together,” says Dave. “We had known each other since we were 12, we were like family, we all had opinions, we were all feisty. It hindered the band.”

In 2002, the original line-up of The Blasters reformed and went on to put out two live albums: the same year’s Trouble Bound, which captured their two excitable shows at Hollywood’s House Of Blues, then 2003’s The Blasters Live: Going Home which featured special guest spots by Chicago blues harpist Billy Boy Arnold and Sun rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess. 

Separately, Phil recorded two solo albums, 1986’s Un “Sung” Stories and 1994’s County Fair 2000. Then, with a reconfigured Blasters, he recorded a further two records, 2005’s 4-11-44 and 2012’s Fun On A Saturday Night

Dave, meanwhile, pledged his allegiance to punk, working with LA bands the Flesh Eaters, X and The Gun Club. With the former he worked most notably on 1981’s A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die, which also featured contributions from Dave’s former Blasters compadre Steve Berlin. With X he joined them on their 1987 album See How We Are – it was a case of learning how to play like Billy Zoom, their previous guitarist, played. Dave collaborated with The Gun Club on 1984’s The Las Vegas Story. “I wish I’d recorded more with them. I first met [The Gun Club frontman] Jeffrey Lee Pierce in December 1979 at our first Hollywood party at the Tropicana hotel. Jeffrey got in a fight and broke the other guy’s collarbone. About a year later, The Blasters had a Friday night residency at the Hong Kong Café, he rang me, told me his band had taken it over. He had a band, The Creeping Ritual, before The Gun Club, with Brian Tristan who became Kid Congo Powers. Anyhow he was bullshitting me, he hadn’t even talked to the venue and we went back and forth for a while on the phone, then I said, ‘Why don’t you open for us?’ and he just went, ‘Okay.’ He liked to jive and I liked him for that. 

"Musically, he was very clever. He understood dynamics, and that’s an R&B and blues thing. He realised he wasn’t Eric Clapton and he wasn’t Richard Thompson, they weren’t great guitar players, were never going to be, but they could make things happen so on that first Gun Club record [1981’s Fire Of Love]. You hear drums and bass and some rumbling on the guitar and then they bash into it and then they go back to drums and bass and that was unique, that use of dynamics in LA punk blues at that time. Jeffrey was a student of music and he was always eager to learn. He soaked everything up and he would come to mine or Phil’s house, and we’d stay up all night listening to records. It was through us that he discovered Tommy Johnson and Charley Patton. He’d never heard them before and it was eye opening for him, because he thought the blues was things like Cream, and then he heard Charley Patton, and it was an introduction into another musical world. As for playing with Jeffrey Lee Pierce, it was a walk in the park, he asked me and it was, ‘Sure, I’ll come by.’ It was fun.”

As was, he says, playing with former X members’ country band The Knitters on their 1987 Poor Little Critter On The Road and 2005 The Modern Sounds Of The Knitters albums and guesting on a series of albums by those he calls his “heroes, people I truly admire”. These included Sonny Burgess’s 1992 Tennessee Border, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s 1999 Long Ride, Little Milton’s Welcome To Little Milton the same year and James Cotton’s 2004 Baby, Don't Tear My Clothes. “I always look for similarities between the musicians I’m drawn to; the differences are way too easy to focus on. Every one of them is wild on stage, they are all true rock ‘n’ rollers. And when they are performing they are in the moment and play music that is off-kilter from what society expects.” 

Concurrently, he helms a satisfying solo career. “Musically it was simple,” he says of making the decision to go it alone in 1987. “I was just playing Lightnin’ Hopkins and Johnny Guitar Watson again and I didn’t see much of a difference to the stuff I was doing in The Blasters. ”

He has 12 studio albums to his name, including 1987’s acclaimed debut Romeo’s Escape, 2000’s Public Domain: Songs From The Wild Land and 2011’s Eleven Eleven, which reunited him with Phil on the track What’s Up With Your Brother. “We rehearsed at my house a couple of times. We had a couple of fights but on the whole it went smoothly and took us a step closer to getting back together,” Dave says. 

It’s unlikely that the Alvin brothers will never have another cross word to say to one another, but for now, recording an album of Big Bill Broonzy songs has brought them full circle.

“He brought us together as young kids, he’s brought us back together now. Hail! Hail! Big Bill Broonzy!” Indeed. 

Common Ground: Dave Alvin And Phil Alvin Play And Sing The Songs Of Big Bill Broonzy is out now, via Yep Rock Records.

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