Monday, January 16, 2012

Every Life About This Time

Dave Alvin, co-founder of the Blasters, briefly guitarist for X, and all-American, all-Los Angeleno troubadour, raised the roof and a few ghosts during his set Sunday night at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. During "Run Conejo Run," a tribute to fallen bandmate Chris Gaffney, he glanced over his shoulder at the stairs leading up to the dressing room as though his friend were about to step in with his accordion. "Black Rose Of Texas," from his new album Eleven Eleven, was for another lost musician friend, Amy Farris. Introducing his first encore, his classic "Fourth Of July," he bonded with audience members over Foxy's Restaurant on Paramount Blvd. in his native Downey and Pup 'N' Taco, a born- and died-in-LA chain. And he opened with "Ash Grove," a boogie about the legendary LA folk club that he used to sneak into as a boy to hear blues legends who have died long since. The closing verses deserve to be quoted at length:
Well I can’t say I been all sinner
Can’t say I been all saint
I’ve done some good deeds and I’ve made big mistakes
I been in and out of love
Said words I regret
I been drunk, been sober
Smoked too many cigarettes
And I’m out on this highway travelin’ town to town
And the news on the radio just brings me down
Intolerance and fear
Ignorance and lies
It’s the same old same old I heard a million times
And I’m thinkin’ of friends and lovers
And how they come and go
Like look-alike houses on the side of the road
Full of everyday people tryin’ to get ahead
Tryin’ to find a reason just to get out of bed
‘Cause we all need somethin’ just to get us through
Well I’m gonna play the blues tonight man
‘Cause that’s what I do
If you've been 56 (like Alvin) or 57 (like me) and the vast ocean of loss is shimmering on the horizon, you feel that way sometimes. Kathy, while no blues hound, enjoyed the show and said it was a blessed thing when someone can make a living doing what he loves. As for me, I rely on the canon of my aging songwriters almost as much as my prayer book and NRSV -- Springsteen, Tom Russell (with whom Alvin wrote "California Snow," which he performed Sunday), John Hiatt, Robert Earl Keen. Alvin's the only one in the pantheon who sings anywhere near as low as I do. I was following the capo up and down the fretboard of his pretty cutaway Martin and staring at his fingers, trying to learn the chord shapes.

With such a prolific and eloquent songwriter and poet, one is also curious about the shape of his life. While Alvin interacts graciously with his audience, he's reticent about personal matters beyond mentioning menthol cigarettes a couple of times and sipping self-consciously from the half-finished Bud Light he carried on stage. His voice is so mellow and supple that you want to tell him to keep on medicating it however he wants. He's written songs that ache with desire, regret, and tormenting jealousy, probably bits of narrative peeking between what Mark Knopfler called the bars of a rhyme. If you want to hear social commentary, check out the powerful medley of his song "Jubilee Train" with Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" and Chuck Berry's "Promised Land," all the peril and promise of living in America packed into a seven hard-rocking minutes.

Alvin performed 15 songs Sunday night and could've done a hundred. I'll be back again hoping to hear "Every Night About This Time," "Out In California," and the achingly beautiful new song, "Manzanita," which I mean to essay with the St. John's folk circle. He played acoustic guitar the whole time, with longtime collaborator Chris Miller filling in on electric. And what a treat when his elder brother, Dr. Phil Alvin (mathematics, UCLA, shown at left above at an earlier gig), joined him for three, including "Marie Marie," which Dave wrote for Phil to sing in their band the Blasters, and "What's Up With Your Brother?", in which they work out some sibling rivalry. On the album version, Dave acknowledges that he likes to have his privacy respected. "Loose lips sink ships, mi hermano," he says. Fair enough. But we do get the picture from the songs, and it does help.

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