Dave Alvin is grinning at his brother Phil like a kid who just flushed an M-80 down the toilet in the boy’s bathroom, and is waiting for the “boom” and gush of water. He’s a short stocky guy with a big toothy smile, and when he’s feeling particularly happy with his guitar playing he’ll spread his legs and cowboy boots out wider and wider until he looks like he might bust the seams on his jeans. Dave Alvin has written songs for The Blasters, his solo projects, two books of poetry, won a Grammy for a folk album, and had a stint in the punk band X. But tonight, playing with his big brother seems to have him in good spirits.
I’ve seen that smile on Dave Alvin face every time I’ve seen him play, both with his brother Phil and without. Friday night at the Kessler Theater, the brothers Alvin were reunited back in Dallas for the first time since the early 80’s when they played at a long forgotten club named Wild Turkey on Walnut Hill and Harry Hines with Johnny Reno.
The Alvin brothers group, The Blasters, was formed in the late 70’s in Downey CA, just southeast of downtown Los Angeles. A lot of white boy blues bands like The Blasters were formed at the collision of their local music and traditional Delta and Chicago blues. These bands would listen to records by blues artists, integrate their local music style, and produce a unique sound.
What makes the Alvin brothers so different was their proximity to LA growing up. As teenagers they met Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker. They hung out with the blues and country musicians. Sonny Terry taught Phil how to play harmonica. Lee Allen played on the brother’s first two albums. This interaction with famous old musicians influenced their musical style and the story telling in a way that only personal experience can.
Phil Alvin is looking a little wobbly as he approaches the mic, kind of like a guy in line at Walgreen’s who still has his hospital bracelets on. He looks over at his little brother Dave, and gives him the “Big Brother” smile. The one that reminds Dave that he’s the front man. Phil is a data scientist with a Masters in math from UCLA, and a lead singer blessed with one of the most unique voices in music. Dave smiles back at his big brother, with the “I just hid your calculator” grin, and they proceed to tear into an almost three hour set.
Phil’s high rockabilly tenor is still magnificent even at 61. It’s a unique sound, infused with a bluesy tone and a country singer’s tremble. Dave admits on stage that he can never sing like Phil, but he can write songs and play a mean guitar. Phil agrees. Dave’s voice is more of a growl, but he attacks the songs he sings with gusto.
The rest of players on stage, called “The Guilty Ones” are Dave’s backup band. They’re more than solid, though the second guitar player wasn’t up to Dave’s level. But that’s a pretty high bar. The back-up vocals are well blended, and the band can handle all the different musical styles with aplomb. The sound at the Kessler was stellar as usual. Dave Alvin tells the crowd that The Kessler is “a place where musicians look forward to play”. Damn high praise.
There is a lot of joking around about the “Fighting Alvin Brothers”, mostly by Dave. But it’s a legendary feud that caused a 25 year separation until Phil almost died from an infected tooth. It’s a feud born from the natural friction between a poet and a mathematician, a traditionalist and an experimenter, a front man and a songwriter. The bothers even joke about other people’s reaction to the feud in a great song called: “What’s up with your brother??” .
The Alvin brothers play cuts from their new album “Common Ground: Dave & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy”. (Broonzy was an influential blues player for generations of British and American musicians). They change pace and play some of the more folk oriented music from Dave’s solo work, then rip through some Blaster’s songs, Big Joe Turner jump blues, and even a killer rendition of James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please”.
At the end of the set, Dave throws his arm around Phil, and says something in Phil’s ear that makes him laugh and shake his head. The little brother has made his big brother laugh again.
The Fighting Alvin Brothers get played off stage by the band, in the old traditional way.