The closest Blaster fans may come to a reunion of the Alvin brothers any time soon is in the song “Boss of the Blues,” on Dave Alvin’s new record, Dave Alvin & The Guilty Woman. Phil appears in this autobiographical number. He’s driving Big Joe Turner down Central Avenue in Los Angeles, with Dave—“16 years old in 1972”—in the back seat. Joe is telling the boys about the good old days of this neighborhood—“a poor man’s paradise”—where “we used to jam all night long/everything was jumpin back when Big Joe Turner was the boss of the blues...” but after witnessing the 70s era urban decay—“Burned out buildings and abandoned stores,” and realizing “no one around here remembers who the hell I am,” Joe can only weep. A gripping song that explores the glee of young musicians hanging out and getting approval from a hero, role model and mentor as they drive through the bad part of town. But that legend becomes human, affected by his response to the conflict between the nostalgia he feels and the present degradation he witnesses. In turn, the young Alvin boys gain a crucial understanding of how social collapse causes internal wreckage.
For those paying attention, this first record featuring new material by Dave Alvin since 2004’s Ashgrove, continues a new strain of songwriting for Alvin, the musical memoir. The title track of Ashgrove was a blues-rock reminiscence about the famed west coast club where the Alvin Brothers first got turned on to rockabilly and the blues. Another song on the new record, “Nana & Jimi,” depicts his mother driving (and even making him a sandwich) Dave and his friends to see Jimi Hendrix, “and nothing’s going to be the same.” This song made me nostalgic, remembering my friends mom driving us to see concerts at the Capitol Theater in Passaic (the Jerry Garcia Band was one I recall). You get out of the car and into the rock concert and you know this world was more dangerous but nothing like the live you had lived. You feel a new freedom. Then you get back in the car and wonder about how you’ve changed. Alvin delves into his trademark blues-rock for this autobiographical yarn that reflects the erotic energy that was Hendrix and the carefree fun of being a young teenager.
In addition to the new installments in his musical “Chronicles,” the new record is also notable because Alvin has put his great band, the Guilty Men on hiatus following the untimely death of band-mate, Chris Gafney. Alvin hooks up with a mainly acoustic bunch of indie Americana females— The Guilty Women. I’m not sure if this is a new direction or just a side-project that serves as a way to regain his bearings, but whatever the reason, it’s another fine collection of songs by one of the most under-appreciated musicians of the last 25 years.
According to the line notes, the project’s inception occurred in 2008 at the Hardly Strictly Blue Grass Festival when Alvin teamed up with a group of roots-oriented women musicians. “I knew they were all master musicians who could handle any sort of song that I could throw at them.”
That they do, and he throws at them nearly every category of roots music in existence. It is a credit to these group of musicians and to Alvin, that not only do they give some amazing performances, but Alvin, working with new musicians, proves his skill as a band leader. The album has a hootenanny attitude similar to Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions, which is an apt comparison since both albums showcase work with a band newly formed for a specific project. Of course, Springsteen had a good ole time romping through some old folkie chestnuts—something Alvin did on his Grammy Award Winning Public Domain. ‘Guilty Women” is a mix of original Alvin, a couple of songs by other band members and some cover material. But, like Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions, the new musicians inspire an infectious energy. If the Guilty Men created a smokey barroom feel—danger always lurking in the shadows; the Guilty Woman have a more wholesome edge—old friends playing on your back porch long into the night.
The Joe Turner song is especially compelling, starting with a real “Jump” music feel, ole-time Rhythm and Blues then phasing seamlessly into Western Swing music. What if Joe Jackson played with Asleep at the Wheel? What if T Bone Walker played with Tex Ritter? Well, I could name drop above my actual knowledge (and record collection) all blog long, but this genre-busting arrangement surprises—just as the song gets into its most blues groove of the R&B sound, that blues sound is played on the fiddle. The ever-eclectic Alvin has always been adept dabbler in a host of genres, sometimes melding them, sometimes playing them straight, but always revealing what the genres have in common while also finding forums for his gravely baritone vocal chords and tasteful guitar technique.
The CD opens with yet another version of Alvin’s Blaster classic, “Marie, Marie,” (Alvin often dips into his song book on new releases; he’s released multiple versions of many of his songs). This take is loose, with a genuine hoe-down feel. The fiddle playing by Amy Farris (who also plays viola) and Laurie Lewis—here and throughout the record—makes you want to clap your hands then slap your knees.
“Marie, Marie” involves a guy who pleads with Marie to ignore the family that detests him and to leave with him, even though his credentials are sparse: “I got two weeks in back pay, and gas in my car.” Alvin is in his 50s now, not the young Romeo when he penned the tune. The song gains a contemporary depth, echoing middle aged love in our economic downturn era. “And you sing so sad... but don’t you understand, I just want to be your loving man.” The sadness may in a large part be due to current global circumstances, but this world weary perspective only makes more poignant the middle aged romantic love expressed.
“Marie, Marie,” with its new how we live now feel interpretation is followed by an explicitly topical song, “California’s Burning,” with Alvin showing off his powerful blues chops, harmonizing with the female voice about some of the natural disasters afflicting the Golden State “if the fire’s don’t get you, the mudslides will.”
“Anyway,” a folk rock tune with country overtones, tells a Carver-esque tale of two lovers who, on the verge of giving up, decide instead to get drunk together— “let’s drown our sorrows honey, drink up all of all of our money, we’ve said all that we have to say.” Classic Alvin, in sound and theme—empathy for those suffering—the song is co-written with Faris, who sings harmony. These days it’s hard to hear down and out tales without thinking of the economy—“let’s kill another beer, pretend that we aren’t here”—and though this may not be overtly topical, the impact of our New Depression on the internal lives of these two lovers is apparent. But there isn’t just bleakness here; with Faris’s sweet harmony, even though it seems that some love has faded and they may have few economic choices other than having a few drinks, the listener is left with the satisfying feeling that their love will be salvaged.
In another autobiographical vein, “Downey Girl,” is about the other singer from his California hometown, Karen Carpenter, who sang “sweet suburban songs.” Profound empathy distinguishes Alvin’s songwriting, but here momentary identification evolves into something else. A hometown may connect these two artists, but their music and careers could not be more different. Alvin portrays a wisdom that comes with age—“Now that I’m older, I can understand her pain, I can feel a little pride, when people say her name”—the wisdom he experiences is the pride in who you are and where you are from and an understanding that maybe the suburban hometown had something to in causing that pain, a pain they both shared but one she couldn’t overcome. Empathy than is transmuted into a movingly somber nostalgia—“a thousand years from my home town/ missing friends and family who are no longer around/then I hear her singing, on the car radio/ a sweet suburban song from a long time ago/and I think about her sadness/and I think about her pain/and for a few sweet minutes/I’m back home again.” Sad violins emote, the guilty women back up the chorus like an ethereal choir and Alvin transcends his ambivalence towards Karen Carpenter’s celebrity, music and the fact she was also from Downey. His empathy enables Karen Carpenter to embody for a moment his own past. She inspires a reflection on his life from which he derives a deeply personal solace. Finally being able to understand her is how the narrator is finally able to understand himself. Empathy is not always the easiest emotion to experience, or act on, but maybe solace is eventually empathy’s worthwhile result.
“Potter’s Field” is another standout track, sung and written by Christy McWilson. An egalitarian lament for the ones who die alone, buried in Potters Field. Like most of this acoustic-centric, folkie-leaning record, this song is a captivating blend of old time mountain music and California Folk Rock, like Ralph Stanley meets Jackson Browne. “Bury me in Potters Field,” Mcwilson sweet, ragged at the edges, voice intones, “in the fields where I belong, where the powerless are strong, and the nameless are unclaimed and unrevealed.” The song confronts death “the dreams and all the disappointments/ fading like footprints in the grass,” and becomes a poignant meditation on mortality and everyone’s inescapable fate. This may not be an Alvin song, but it shares his empathy with the ones society neglects. A testament to ultimate solidarity—empathy doesn’t end at the graveyard.
Other non-Alvin songs include Tim Hardin’s “Don’t Make Promises,” and Kate Wolf’s “These Times We’re Living In.,” delivered in a Buck Owens unplugged style. When all is said and done, there might be other albums in Alvin’s oeuvre I might recommend first, but this is a very entertaining addition to that canon. Eclectic as ever, he is real gamer with this new group of musicians—and perhaps because they are women—they augment Alvin’s finest qualities. A lot of joy and fun is felt in these songs, capped off in a raucous, countrified boogie-woogie version of “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” made indelibly famous as the theme song for the Doris Day Show, a 60s sit-com. Another duet, with McWilson plays the mother in the song. There are hilarious moments, when Alvin asks, “Mother, will I be rich,” and McWilson intones a doubtful, “well...” Then the whole band goes hog-wild as the singers testify a cheerful acceptance of life “whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see.” The performance is not corny, not karaoke, not a novelty song. It sounds like it was always meant to be countrified boogie-woogie, capping off this eclectic outing with a playful ode to fatalism.
I often think I listen for texture the most in music, and on that score this record has an amazing texture, thick with Americana sounds: fiddles, dobros, resonator & pedal steel guitars, bar room pianos, mandolins. It’s not entirely acoustic, since electric guitar often chimes in—but that’s more sauce than meat. The texture accommodates all the whims of the musicians and the arrangements. But, special attention must be paid to Lisa Pankratz, the band’s drummer and percussionist. Pankratz is able to navigate these different shores as she propels the texture so it always rocks and is never too sweet or too harsh. The intelligence and attentiveness with which she plays, sustains the energy of this record. You may not notice the drumming right off the bat, but that is precisely why it is so appropriate. By the second or third listen, you realize what is making the texture of this music effective—astute percussion.