Every Houstonian knows the sounds of a heavy storm, especially after last week's visit from Imelda. Elements in nature feed off of each other to create perfect storms. Last years, From Downey To Lubbock, a collaboration between Texas Flatlander, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and California Blaster, Dave Alvin, melted natural elements of each artists to create the perfect storm. The legends will return to Houston once again September 24 to perform at the Heights Theater.
The two men had long run in the same circles, played the same stages and were even label mates on HighTone Records, but always just missing each other by a few years. Alvin even wrote about Gilmore for a now defunct magazine. Separately, each was a key player in their respective genres of Americana and Rock and Roll. They became friends in the ‘90s and were both part of the original Monster of Folk lineup.
It wasn’t until they ventured on a tour together that they decided to make it official and record an album. From Downey to Lubbock was released last year and continues to be a favorite for the fans as well as the artists — neither lacks enthusiasm when discussing the album. Both also admit that with their busy schedules it’s been hard to get to work on a follow up album but aren't ruling it out.
Alvin and Gilmore managed to perfectly capture their contrasting yet equally powerful talents in the album. Alvin brings to the table his thunderous voice and guitar playing while Gilmore's ghostly voice and harmonica playing howl like the wind. The title track provides a narrative of their collaboration, history and meshing of styles.
“This has been a very wonderful thing to happen, this partnership with Dave has turned out to be a wonderful thing for me,” says Gilmore. “The whole thing was a giant surprise to me. I always really loved Dave and his music, but since we had never played together before, it sounded like kind of a science experiment, and it just clicked from the very beginning,” he adds.
The idea for the album came to Alvin after hearing Gilmore do a Blind Lemon Jefferson song during a tour stop in Texas. “I was like yeah, I think we could make a record together. I immediately knew that I wanted to sort of showcase Jimmie Dale as a blues and R&B singer because he’s a great blues singer. He’s always had that in his music, but I really wanted to bring it to the forefront and make it less Americana and more Bluesicana or whatever,” says Alvin.
Despite their shared professional experiences, the two artists didn’t necessarily share an audience and many fans were surprised by the collaboration. “We have similar roots, we just have played them differently over the years. I know that when the record came out there were a lot of people like, ‘What? Jimmie Dale and Dave Alvin?’, but to me it made total sense,” says Alvin.
“It works musically, it works really well for me and apparently it works for Dave because he wants to keep doing it,” says Gilmore. “We are really similar in some ways and dissimilar in others and the ways that were similar are good, and the ways that were dissimilar are good,” says Alvin.
Both artists spent much of their time around the historic Los Angeles folk club, The Ash Grove. Prior to radio and recording companies climbing into bed together and homogenizing the airwaves, The Ash Grove provided a home for older folk and blues artists of the sixties. Great blues artists like Mississippi John Hurt, Muddy Waters, Son House and Houston’s own Lightin’ Hopkins frequented the venue, and a young Alvin and Gilmore were there to witness their performances but never formally met each other until the ‘90s.
“The great thing about the Ash Grove was, they didn’t just present music they presented music in a broader context. I’m a history buff and America's music is America’s history, so when I was a kid and I saw these artists, I just viewed it as seeing history in all of its complicated sometimes ugly sometimes transcendental glory,” says Alvin.
Both men cite Lightnin’ Hopkins as a huge source of inspiration, “First of all, his music was just so totally spontaneous and unstructured and at the same time just really unified in some strange way. I spent time with him but always in the circumstance of that club, we didn’t have an intimate friendship, but we were good friends and it was totally young fan to an old master relationship,” describes Gilmore.
Gilmore admits that in hindsight, he wishes he would have been more proactive about sympathizing with the struggles of his black heroes during the civil rights era. “I wasn't aware of that back then and they didn't complain about it, it wasn't part of their thing. I was aware of the injustice of it all but I somehow never did associate that with them, they weren't any kind of protesting activists, they were just musicians. I was around those guys and they just treated me like an equal, which is kind of wonderful and amazing,” says Gilmore.
“I realized I couldn't be Lightnin’ Hopkins, as much as I would love to be Lightnin’ Hopkins, there was no way I could be; I couldn’t experience the world or see the world exactly the same way he did. I could certainly be exposed to how he saw the world and that would be an important thing, but to try to be that was always a little bit silly to me and silly to Lightnin’,” laughs Alvin.
In the studio and onstage Alvin and Gilmore tap into each other’s strengths as artists and easily give each other credit. “He’s not only a great musician, he’s a really good producer and he’s a very good organizer which is so wonderful because his presence seems just so explosive and spontaneous but he’s able to really focus too,” says Gilmore of his buddy Alvin.
Alvin describes his “leadership” differently, “I’m stubborn,” laughs Alvin. “I don’t know that "leader" is the word I would use, I would just say that I know what I like.” Alvin describes Gilmore’s presence as “A deep and long river. He's a constant source of inspiration and enlightenment, delight and joy, there’s a lot of joy.”
They will be backed by Alvin’s talented backing band, The Guilty Ones, made up of powerhouse drummer, Lisa Pankratz, Brad Fordham on bass and Chris Miller on guitar. “I think one of the things is when he’s out with me and my band. he’s certainly been in great bands, but I don't think he’s ever been in a “rock and roll band” and he’s digging it,” says Alvin.
Gilmore echoes the sentiment, “The music is really fun and exciting for me but also they are all just really good travel mates and fun to hang out with. The Guilty Ones sure are one of the best I’ve ever played with, and I’ve had extremely good fortune in that regard playing with top of the line musicians for along long, long time.”
Both men are happy to return to Houston and hold the city in a special place in their hearts. “Houston has always been one of the truly great music towns, people don’t recognize that but I’ve known it for a long time and it’s always fun to play there. The one main common thing in our background was Lightin’ Hopkins, so Houston has been oddly enough a big part of my music career,” says Gilmore.
Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore will be performing with The Guilty Ones will be performing with Jon Lankford, Tuesday September 24 at the Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th. Doors open at 7 p.m. $32-254.
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