Guitarist Keith Wyatt has been with Phil Alvin's Blasters, one of the most storied roots ensembles to emerge from the '80s, for almost two decades now. But even after 17 years, he's still frequently standing in the shadow of original Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin, who left the band in 1986 to pursue a solo career after penning such roots classics as "Marie, Marie," "American Music," and Dwight Yoakam's hit "Long White Cadillac."
Anytime the Blasters announce a gig on Facebook, one can usually expect several "is Dave playing this gig?" messages on either Phil or Dave's Facebook pages. Or both.
Wyatt just laughs about the ongoing drama.
"I got in the band in 1996, but it's still pretty common for people to come up after a gig and say, 'I saw you in 1982, man,' says Wyatt. "Whatever it is -- they don't know who Dave is, they don't know who I am, whatever -- I've just learned to smile and roll with it."
Wyatt notes that being in the Blasters is like having a guitar player's merit badge.
"After this long, I understand that I'm part of a line that runs from Dave through Hollywood Fats and James Inveld, so I'm very conscious of this tradition," he says. "It's an honor to be in that line of players."
So how has Wyatt managed to last 17 years in such a hallowed slot?
"I'm extremely patient," Wyatt laughs. "Actually, we're all way down the road in our careers, so we know how to take care of business, and we all have other things to keep us occupied when we aren't operating as the Blasters."
For his part, Wyatt is an instructor at the famed Musician's Institute in Los Angeles, which offers both associate and bachelor's degrees. While he has scaled back his activities at the Musician's Institute from the days when he was Vice President of Programs and the force behind a long string of instructional videos, he still teaches a basic guitar class weekly.
"I love teaching," says Wyatt. "It's just the most mind-blowing thing when we get these Korean kids or Chinese kids coming into the program. They've heard American music, but it's such a great thing to see someone from an entirely different cultural reference point learn how to actually participate in playing American music.
"It's inspiring that it means so much to them," he continues. "I'm constantly amazed."
Story continues on the next page.Keith Wyatt doing what he does best with Phil Alvin and the Blasters
Wyatt has had a broad career in Los Angeles, and has performed with Albert Collins as well as two members of '60s supergroup Cream, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Houston-born Collins had a huge effect on Wyatt's musical outlook.
"Like a lot of guys my age, I looked to Hendrix, and then that sort of passed over to Stevie Ray Vaughan," Wyatt observes. "But Albert taught me in a single hour onstage how important a single note can be, that it's not about this super-fast technique or some huge jumble of licks, that one lick played right has a huge effect.
"Blues has emotional content and truth, that's why it still matters and why people are drawn to it still. I learned that firsthand from Albert Collins. He definitely altered my thinking about how to play and present yourself as a guitar player."
Wyatt describes the current Blasters tour as "all business."
"People will probably think this is funny, but we don't listen to music in the van," he laughs. "We just don't. We've all been at this a while, so it's pretty routine now and we're as comfortable as you can be with something that has you moving all the time."
As for his listening preferences, Wyatt notes that as he's gotten older his musical tastes have too.
"When Dave and Phil separated, Dave took the albums and Phil took the 78s, and those 78s of Phil's really speak to me more and more," he says. "Recording was so different back then, with no room for error and hardly any way to fix an error. So the stuff that lasts actually lasts for a good reason."
Wyatt caught the music bug very early -- "Hendrix, Zeppelin, the usual stuff for guys my age" -- and has literally spent his entire life around guitars. But all isn't peaches and cream.
"It's actually tough times for guitar players right now," Wyatt observes. "We seem to go through cycles, and maybe guitar will make a comeback, but right now if there are guitars at all in pop music it's just for some texturing. No one is listening to popular music right now and saying, 'Oh, wow, listen to that guitar player.'
"Metal is actually one of the few genres where shredding is still par for the course, but that's not really anything I'm all that interested in," continues Wyatt. "And then of course, country music -- that's country music with parentheses around it, you know? -- is about the only popular, radio-playable music still utilizing the guitar as a feature instrument.
"The funny thing about that is that those guys who do that gig have the biggest, most ridiculous amps and craziest pedal boards of anyone now," he says. "For some reason I find that amusing."
The Blasters play the Continental Club with Whiskey Shivers Friday, January 24. Doors open at 8 p.m.
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