Dave Alvin takes Carbondale stage
CARBONDALE – Dave Alvin’s father was a union organizer, and often in Alvin’s childhood, he and his older brother Phil would be piled into the car for trips to the Rocky Mountains. These were, apparently, influential experiences; four-plus decades later, Alvin remembers stops in Minturn, Leadville and Red Cliff, and what happened there: “Midnight, clandestine rallies, organizing copper and coal miners,” he recalled. Alvin connects those adventures, and his father’s work, to the kind of songwriter he has become, scratching for the stories hidden underneath the surface, lurking in the blue-collar cracks of America.”My father told me, early on, to look at all sides of the story, don’t just take what you’re told as the gospel,” Alvin said.As influential as those trips to Colorado might have been, though, they don’t seem to be the primary shaper of Alvin’s artistry. Listen to enough of Alvin – and his output is prodigious, including two handfuls of albums with the Blasters, the 1980s roots-rock band he had with Phil; an album with the punk band X, in which he played guitar for two years; and some 15 albums under his own name – and what starts to take shape is a musical picture of Alvin’s home state of California. This isn’t the Beach Boys’ waves and girls, or the Hollywood glam-smut of Guns N’ Roses, but something less iconic and bigger-picture: a mix of Bakersfield country, norteo from the Mexican border, inner-city blues and rural folk.And Alvin tends to write and sing about the place he knows best. “Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women,” his 2009 album, features “California’s Burning” and “Downey Girl,” a reference to his home town, back-to-back. “Dry River,” from the 1991 album “Blue Boulevard,” is about the cement channel that runs trough Downey. His 1994 album is titled “King of California”; “West of the West,” from 2006, is a covers album featuring songs by Californians, including Brian Wilson, Jackson Browne and John Fogerty.”I don’t think you have to be so connected to a place. But it doesn’t hurt,” said the 55-year-old Alvin, who performs Friday at the PAC3 in Carbondale. “You hear Cole Porter, George Gershwin, you think of a certain place and time. Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Brian Wilson – or me, apparently. It’s not mandatory, but it does give depth to the songs.”While California provided depth in the songs, it also gave Alvin stylistic breadth. “One of the things I think about California, when I was growing up, that was different than other parts of the country, you could hear any music you wanted,” Alvin said. “Phil and I snuck into bars, mainly to see blues people, everybody from the famous to the obscure – Muddy Waters to Juke Boy Bonner. We were closest to the L.A. guys who played the neighborhood bars – T Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner.” (Alvin pays homage to Turner, and L.A.’s Central Avenue blues scene, in the song, “Boss of the Blues.”)”But also norteo, surf, honky tonk. Especially where we grew up, on the southeast side of L.A. county, the blue-collar area, it was such a melting pot of music. You could see anything in a bar. That was a big influence. Even though my tastes were blues and r&b, I also got into pedal steel because at 13, 14, I saw it in a bar. In that era, I don’t think there was such a cornucopia in other places.”Alvin is quick to point out that he doesn’t think of Downey, Calif. in the 1960s as a paradise. “But it was a place where all kinds of people got together,” he said. Nor does he see himself as unique in distilling a variety of musical styles. “The Grateful Dead – like them or not, they were the epitome, doing everything from blues to Bakersfield to outer-space jams. And it was all the same to me.”Even Alvin’s most notable side trip still kept him connected to Los Angeles. In 1986, on a Friday night in Montreal, Alvin quit the Blasters; the next day, he was on a flight to New York to play with the Knitters, the country alter-ego of L.A. punkers X. The day after that, he was installed as X’s new lead guitarist. Alvin didn’t mind the shift in style, but after two years of playing other people’s songs, he realized he needed to focus on his own writing.”What I missed, as much fun as it was, was writing my own songs,” he said. “John [Doe] and Exene [Cervenka] are great songwriters, and they recorded a couple of my songs. But they didn’t need them.”California runs deep in Alvin. He is a fourth-generation Californian and, apart from a brief spell in Nashville, has lived there all his years. He currently resides in the hills in an old part of Los Angeles, but he is a newcomer to the neighborhood, having spent 30 years in the city’s Silverlake area.But there is a place that feels even more like home. Alvin spends two thirds of his time on the road.”That’s why I consider myself more an American songwriter than anything,” he said. “I spend time in New Hampshire and Wisconsin and Georgia. I guess I’m a motel room songwriter.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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