Blue Notes

Dave Alvin: "I'm Just a Blues Guitarist." (Don't Believe Him.)

Dave Alvin, who rolls into the Continental Club with brother and Blasters front man Phil Alvin for a late show tonight at the Continental Club, can’t believe Country Dick Montana has been dead 20 years.

“Man, when I saw that yesterday, it blew my mind,” Alvin says over a first cup of coffee from his home in Los Angeles, where he has a short break in what has become a never-ending tour. “I thought maybe it was ten years, but 20? Wow, that makes you feel old.”

Alvin, who turns 60 next Wednesday, has had a wide-ranging career, first with his brother in the Downey, California, roots-rock band The Blasters. Alvin recalls that the earliest days with the band were somewhat puzzling.

“We could sell out the Whiskey A-Go-Go three nights in a row,” says Alvin, “so that’s like 2,500 tickets. Yet some guy at a club down the street would only draw 30 people one night and he’d get a record deal and we couldn’t get anyone to even notice us from the labels. It was a bit confusing.”

But the band finally broke through in late 1980. Alvin remembers Houston as being a key tour stop.

“Houston was always one of our favorite places,” Alvin remembers. “People really accepted us there, took us in, encouraged us. Frank Motley and guys like that got us some radio play and would plug our shows. We had a bit of an infrastructure behind us in Houston, and that was great for us.”

Most recently, Alvin has temporarily put his solo career on hiatus and is working again with brother Phil, with whom he split rather acrimoniously in 1986. While Phil soldiered on with a series of new guitarists in The Blasters, Dave played a year with L.A. punks X while developing a solo career that would see him record monumental roots albums and tour with a road band including members of the Skeletons and guitar stalwart Rick Shea; they could go toe-to-toe with anyone anywhere. But the brothers eventually reconciled and released an album of Big Bill Broonzy covers, Common Ground, which was nominated for a 2014 Best Blues Album Grammy.

Currently, they're touring in support of their brand-new release, Lost Time. Alvin notes that since the first Blasters album, he’s had an organic approach to recording all across his career.

“I always lean toward what seems organic,” he explains. "There have been one or two short instances where I’ve gone ‘Okay, we’ll do this just this once,'” but usually it has to make complete sense to me or I’m not interested.

“I’ve known people that had these plans that were like their blueprint, like Dwight [Yoakam]," adds Alvin. "I remember even before he had a record deal or any inkling of success, Dwight already had all the songs picked for his first two albums. And he actually did it exactly according to that plan he had. But I think something like that is one in a thousand maybe. For me, I tend to follow along the trail of wherever you’re at, whatever musicians or songwriters your’re hanging with. A record is actually a record of where I am now or where I was then. That’s why they call them records.”

Alvin has been hailed as a virtuoso guitarist, known for his full-on attack and monster tone. But he can play any genre, any style.

“When you cut me open, I’m basically a blues player as a guitarist,” he notes. “But as a songwriter, I don’t want to be limited to some particular genre or any particular kind of song. My songwriting is much more open than my guitar playing."

Alvin is known for a piercing, bee-sting, aggressive attack on his guitar solos, and he knows exactly where that bee-sting phenomenon comes from.

“Johnny 'Guitar' Watson,” says Alvin laconically. “I remember when I was maybe 15, I got to see a double bill of Rev. Gary Davis and Johnny Watson. Davis was about three months from dying, he was frail and feeble, but he was up there doing his thing with an acoustic guitar and banging out these moaning blues hymns. He was also doing a little preaching between songs. I’d really never seen anything like it, and I was sitting in like the second row, so I was pretty close. It really moved me and got me thinking about what blues is, how you do it, how you approach it.

“Then Johnny Watson comes on," Alvin continues. "This is before he got all flashy and started doing that funk thing; he was still doing just straight-up electric blues. He’d gotten arrested that day and he got bailed out and was just a bit late arriving for the gig. So here’s this wild young black guy who’s all pissed off and he takes his aggression out on his guitar. I really was never the same after seeing those two guys, the juxtaposition of two guys doing blues in completely different ways, yet it was all the same in a way; it all tied together and made sense. That day has stuck with me.”

Alvin recalls meeting another of his heroes as a young teen.

“Lightnin’ Hopkins, he was just different than the rest; he was a bit aloof, I think that’s a good description,” says Alvin. “I just remember Lighnin’ seemed a bit suspicious, cautious, like he didn’t want to get taken in some deal. He was pleasant when we talked to him, but he wasn’t this ebullient, outgoing, open, approachable type like Big Joe Williams. But I’ve probably gone to school on Lightnin’ as much as any guitarist or performer.”

As a songwriter, Alvin has had some success with songs placed in movies, and he appeared as part of the band in the Dennis Quaid-starring Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire! Not just a rocker, Alvin has also written a number of country songs and had a close call with legendary vocalist George Jones.

“When I wrote “Every Night About This Time,” I was actually hearing it in my head as a George Jones song; it was in his voice,” says Alvin. “I was with Epic Nashville at that time, and Del Bryant, the son of Boudleaux Bryant, loved that song and he pitched it all over town. So I get this call to come to Nashville for a session where George Jones is going to cut the song. I’m all packed and set to go, and they call and say the session is off.

"I never could find out what happened, whether a producer didn’t like the song; maybe George didn’t like the song, I could just never find out for certain what happened," wonders Alvin. "But I did hear from a couple of people that some of the folks in the chain of command thought the song was too country. So I'll take that: I'm the guy who wrote a song that was too country for George Jones. What a world.”

A seasoned veteran, Alvin takes such setbacks philosophically. He’s seen plenty of changes in the business since 1979.

“That’s one reason I stopped producing records,” he explains. “Other than maybe the Derailers and Big Sandy, none of the artists I was producing seemed to be able to tour, to get a booking agent or a manager and make a tour happen or make a tour viable as far as money went. So we’d make these nice records but nothing would ever develop. I see so many artists today that deserve to be recorded and deserve a wider audience, but in the roots or roadhouse world, that’s just getting tougher and tougher to do.”

Meanwhile, he doesn’t see any end in sight as far as collaboration with his brother.

“It feels good right now and people seem to really be accepting what we’re doing, so why not?” Alvin jests. “This is what we do; we have to make a living somehow. Who knows how long we can make it last?”

Dave and Phil Alvin perform tonight at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. Doors open at 9 p.m.

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William Michael Smith