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Passion and survival

Dave Alvin still digs the roots of American music


Somewhere tonight a man straps on a guitar to face the world. Somewhere tonight a man is pouring his all out upon the stage. Somewhere tonight this man sings the blues. His music speaks for those without a voice or for those who simply haven't found one yet --- the unheralded, unsung everyday heroes just like him.

            Somewhere tonight this man will lay his head down on a flat, too-clean pillow on an expired mattress in yet another strange motel room. He'll sleep a few hours amidst the ringing in his ears before he gets up, piles his 48-year-old bones into a van to drive to yet another destination to do it all again.

            Somewhere tonight an audience is lucky enough to hear this man's tales of love and death and hope and faith come to life in a palpable flurry of well-worn roots rock. Dave Alvin is on stage.

            This is Alvin's passion. The road's allure and romance have long since faded to black. Nobody can write a love song, rock 'n' roll rave-up, or lonesome ballad quite like Alvin. Though stardom --- the kind that sadly equals legitimacy in our pop world --- eludes him, the man perseveres through an endless string of gigs.

            "I love playing live," Alvin says from his LA home, a place he sees roughly half the year. "Whatever's glamorous about truck stops and motel rooms and bad food and sore backs... that's gone away. Driving all night from Seattle to Dallas, that's sort of lost its thrill. But the actual gig, the actual playing, that's still the greatest thing in life. That's the addiction."

            Alvin first rolled out with his brother Phil in 1979 in The Blasters. The band roared out of Downey, California, and into the middle of the LA punk scene. And though he's a humble guy, Alvin readily agrees The Blasters played some of the finest rock 'n' roll of this generation.

            The band mixed all the elements of roots rock --- or just "American music," as they called it --- with incendiary energy and a remarkably reverent instrumentation (the band even boasted Little Richard's sax man, Lee Allen).

            But what truly set the band above other fledgling roots-rockers at that time like Los Lobos, The Paladins, James Intveld, The Stray Cats, The Rockats, and the like was Dave Alvin's songwriting. While the band relentlessly rocked on, Phil Alvin would sing his brother's tunes with words that were as regal as they were blue-collar. Brother Dave hung back, preferring to beat the hell out of his guitar.

            Alvin left the band in 1986 and briefly joined up with X having already branched out with X members in The Knitters in 1983. The all-original Blasters lineup reunited last year for a tour and to record a live album.

            "The reunion was one of the highlights of my life," he says, adding that another tour is "not unlikely."

            So it was from The Blasters' rubble and after a few short detours that Alvin emerged a solo artist, playing the rough 'n' tumble barroom rock he'd been known for, tempered with a lean toward country and folk-tinged ballads. There was Dave Alvin the rocker and Dave Alvin the balladeer.

            "They're both the same thing, they really are," he says. "They just use different muscles."

            Alvin doesn't feel the need to differentiate. An evening in the early '70s at the fabled Ashgrove in Los Angeles showed him the light.

            It was a one-two punch with The Reverend Gary Davis (who would die three months later) and Johnny "Guitar" Watson" on the same bill.

            "So there was Reverend Gary Davis, who was dying," Alvin says. "And he was at peace with himself and his life and the world and it was great, it was amazing. And then after him was Johnny 'Guitar' Watson who had been arrested earlier that day by the LAPD." Alvin's not sure of the charge, "but he was pissed off and he had a band and he was playing electric," he says, laughing.

            "And right there in one show was the whole history of not only the blues but, in some ways, of American music. And that taught me at a very early age that there is no difference. There're stylistic differences, but bottom line --- nah, same notes."

            It was from the impact of this show and countless others (Muddy Waters, Albert King, Juke Boy Potter, and Johnny Shines just to name a few) at this long-gone joint that Alvin arrived at the title of his tenth and latest solo record, Ashgrove. This is an album that ought to please fans on both sides of the Alvin fence: rock 'n' rollers and those who dig his more pensive material. Recorded essentially live, the album waxes of earth, cigarette smoke, steel, and wood.

            "The weird paradox," he says, "is that in the digital recording age that we've come into, it's actually easier to record like you did at Chess or at Sun or like Charlie Patton did in the '20s. It has actually made it easier and cheaper to record live."

            Ashgrove is definitely a guitar album. It pumps and strolls and shuffles and boogies with occasional plunges into heartaches as big as the southwestern vistas Alvin's lyrics paint.

            Ashgrove hosts characters --- or the ghosts of characters for that matter --- nobody would hear or care about were it not for Alvin. "Nine Volt Heart" tells the story of a little boy whose only companion amidst his parent's indifference is a little radio. The radio saves him and continues to do so as he grows with each verse. Alvin takes on the role of a two-bit hooker's shady muscleman in the dead-end noir tune "Out Of Control." And in classic Alvin advocate form, he sings from beyond the grave, "I was born Everett Ruess / I've been dead for sixty years / I was just a young boy in my twenties / The day I disappeared," on "Everett Ruess."

            "I just try to write about people just trying to get out of bed in the morning, you know," Alvin says. "That's really it. What do you do between getting out of bed and going back to bed? The older you get, the more you realize music's about survival. So old folk songs or old rock 'n' roll songs --- all those things are the things that help you survive. Somebody breaks your heart and you have to survive that. A friend dies or a parent dies and you've got to survive that."

            Alvin wrote the beautiful and achingly poignant "The Man In The Bed" to cope with his father's death in 2000.

            "I don't think I've written a better song," he says.

            A bittersweet commonality runs throughout his characters. Alvin doesn't immediately concur.

            "I don't know what they have in common," he says. "I can't think that way or I would never write songs. You know, I just write them. And then later on you look at it: 'Hey that guy's kinda like that guy.'"

            Maybe they're all a little like Dave.

            "Oh, there's a chunk of me to a greater or lesser extent," he says. "We all have those characters inside us."

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men with guest Ben Arnold play Thursday, July 15, at the Montage Grille, 50 Chestnut Street, at 8 p.m. $18-$20. 232-8380