Review: Dave Alvin Delivers A Roots-Rocking Tour De Force

Show fleshes out his approach to music, largely summed up long ago in his Blasters song 'American Music.'

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Former Blasters member Dave Alvin struck a powerful blow for "American Music" on Friday night at the Roxy club with his anthem of the same name and a rousing roots-star jam, showing that California's roots-music heritage is every bit as authentic as Nashville's — if not more so.

Alvin's memorable set was distinguished by top-notch musicianship and capped by an explosive, freewheeling encore in which Alvin and his Guilty Men were joined by opening acts Robbie Fulks and masked surf guitarists Los Straitjackets, plus Los Lobos' Cesar Rosas and accordion-playing honky-tonker Chris Gaffney.

Alvin opened with the searing ballad "King of California," from his 1994 album of the same name, singing in a deep voice that has grown appreciably richer since his days with the Blasters and X.

Beer cups were lifted in admiration as Rick Shea's bright mandolin lines enhanced the song's haunting story.

Alvin followed with several songs from his new album, Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land, including "What Did the Deep Sea Say," one of the evening's many highlights.

Dressed in his customary stage attire — black leather jacket over a blue denim shirt, talisman necklace, blue jeans and boots — he seemed like a gracious and grateful host as he introduced "Walk Right In" with comments that could easily have served as the show's mission statement.

"Folk music wasn't always about conservatories and politeness. At one time it was about getting rowdy ... being somewhere you weren't supposed to be," Alvin said.

He restored the campfire staple to what he called its "raunchy, possibly unlawful roots" in a much greasier version than is heard on the album, punctuated by fierce guitar riffs that he often lengthened into mini blues solos.

A Runaway River

A rendition of "Dry River" (from Alvin's 1991 Blue Blvd) was received with cries of "Go, Dave, go!" and "Blasters rock!"

Alvin received strong, intuitive support from Shea and the rest of the Guilty Men — keyboardist Joe Terry, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks and bassist Gregory Boaz.

Their ranks were expanded by noted country fiddler Brantley Kearns, who performed on Alvin's last two albums, and John "Juke" Logan, the blues harpist who was a key member of the Allnighters, the backup band for Alvin's first solo efforts.

Logan's spirited contributions received loud ovations from the audience, and intensified the roadhouse feel of songs such as "New Highway," "Railroad Bill" (RealAudio excerpt) and especially the righteous "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," which Alvin described as "Muddy Waters with Bo Diddley if they ever did a record with Bill Monroe."

At one point, Alvin and Logan leaned against each other, back to back, teasing and challenging each other as they traded licks and inspired delirious shouts from the audience.

The tight interplay between Shea's honky-tonk pedal-steel lines, Kearns' fiddling, Terry's robust keyboard solos, Boaz's bass work and Logan's melodic harmonica bursts inspired frequent broad grins from Alvin, and eloquently underscored the melding of genres emblematic of Alvin's earthy music.

The band's expert dynamics also enhanced the drama of "Out in California" (RealAudio excerpt), "Wanda and Duane," and especially "Abilene," one of the sparkling gems in Alvin's oeuvre.

Loud Folks

Alvin delivered some beautiful guitar playing on the deliberately stern, sorrowful "Shenandoah" (RealAudio excerpt), but the heavy drums made it more bombastic than on Public Domain's sensual meditation.

"There's two types of folk music," Alvin said. "There's quiet folk music, and there's loud folk music. Right now we'd like to do some quiet folk music."


Strapping on his electric guitar, Alvin swapped noodling blues licks with Terry before ripping into the Blasters' "So Long Baby Goodbye" (RealAudio excerpt), then closed the band's anthemic treatment of "Fourth of July" with a furious crescendo of notes that had the audience on its feet and dancing wherever it could.

Alvin was clearly gratified by the response. "Sometimes this can be a very weird, wonderful but lonely life," he said, "so nights like this mean the world to bums like us."

He closed his set with the most appropriate song possible, considering the road he's traveled from rockabilly to punk to folk and Americana: "American Music," from the Blasters' 1980 debut album.

It was the perfect choice.

Alvin quoted Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's jump-blues nugget "Okie Dokie Stomp" in the midst of one of several intense guitar solos, and Kearns' fiddle provided a touch of old-timey swing and grace in the midst of all the no-holds-barred instrumental testosterone.

Responding to two minutes of overwhelming applause, Alvin and the Guilty Men encored with lovely performances of "Blackjack David" and Mickey Newbury's "Mobile Blues," then brought Gaffney onstage for a great romp through Webb Pierce's "Honky Tonk All Night Long."

Gaffney's piercing twang was richly complemented by Shea's pedal steel and Logan's road-soaked blues licks; Gaffney and Alvin sang into the same microphone as Alvin swiftly turned the final chorus into a bluesy free-for-all.

The show's adrenalized peak was the wickedly jubilant sing-along to Fulks' "love letter" to Nashville, "Fuck This Town." Flashing impressive bluegrass instrumental chops, Fulks was an impish ringleader as he, Alvin, the Guilty Men, Gaffney and Los Straitjackets crowded onto the stage while the audience laughed and pumped the air with their fists.

The ad-libbing assemblage followed with a roaring version of "Marie, Marie" that Rosas brought to a close with a stinging guitar solo. It was an unforgettable finish to a nightlong demonstration of exciting roots-music firepower.