Dave Alvin is close to 50 years old. He is (no offense) kind of funny looking, with a big forehead and a mouth — sometimes toting a soul patch beneath it — that's a little too wide for the head it sits on.
Yet every time I go see the guy play, I'm surrounded by hip, good-looking young gals who are visibly antsy, itching to shove their hands down his tight black jeans.
However good they think he looks from the rear, you gotta figure that what the girls are really responding to is something not in his jeans but in his genes: Alvin connects with a testosterrific heritage of rock 'n' roll that started way before Elvis, back through R&B to the jump blues and boogie woogie of Big Joe Turner — who, late in his life, shared a stage or two with Alvin's former band, the Blasters.
Demonstrating that the Blasters, who played songs by Dave but were led by brother Phil Alvin, were roughly five times as authentic as most other roots rockers of the early '80s is easy to do, now that Rhino has released Testament, a two-disc collection of the group's Slash recordings. Listening to the Dave Alvin original that starts the set, "Marie Marie," you could swear you've heard Clifton Chenier doing it (Buckwheat Zydeco eventually covered it), and numerous other tunes have a similar "instant classic" feel, like "American Music," which includes a truncated catalog of the genres that were poured into the Blasters' melting pot: "we got the Loosiana boogie and the Delta blues / we got country, swing, and rockabilly too / ... country-western and Chicago blues / it's the greatest music that you ever knew / it's American music."
Though it might've sounded counter-intuitive at the time, all those styles blended perfectly with the L.A. punk scene in which the Blasters blossomed; audiences were expecting to feel some heat from the stage, and the band delivered it via genres that were still hanging somewhere in the ozone, as Wolfman Jack's decade-old, illegally over-electrified radio waves bounced between clouds and the desert.
After leaving the Blasters, Alvin proved his genre-hopping cred by putting in some time on guitar with the punk outfit X, who were big fans of his previous band. When X decided to make a one-off country record under the name the Knitters, Alvin was there; the disc may not have made the Top 40, but it was influential enough to inspire an alt-country tribute a couple of years ago, Poor Little Knitter on the Road, featuring big names like Whiskeytown and the Old 97's.
In 1987, Alvin gave up being somebody else's sideman, releasing a solo record that, depending which side of the Atlantic you were on, was called either Every Night About This Time or Romeo's Escape. The disc's bar rock sound wasn't as compelling as the Blasters had been, and the songwriter was really just learning to sing (Phil, with his thickly stylized R&B yelp, had always been plenty of voice for the previous band), but it contains two of Alvin's best story songs, "Fourth of July" and "Every Night About this Time" (made more famous by Robert Earl Keen and Joe Ely, respectively), and both are in relaxed instrumental settings in which you can actually hear the stories being told. (For a comparison, listen to this album's excellent "Border Radio" and compare it to the amped-up version the Blasters cut a few years earlier; some of Alvin's tales are too beautiful to bury under loud guitars.) On Every Night, Alvin proved that he'd gone beyond mastery of the R&B idioms he loved so much; now he was writing songs that, in a hundred words or two, collected a handful of crucial details to tell a story with enough emotional depth for Raymond Carver.
Two records in the early '90s, Blue Blvd. and Museum of Heart, followed in this vein: good songs, solid bands, but Alvin was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his voice. Sometime in there, to hear the artist tell it, a lightbulb went on over his head while he was listening to Richard Thompson; though his childhood heroes, like Big Joe Turner, had voices that could compete with the rowdiest bands (and Phil had sung Dave's songs that way), Alvin saw that Thompson sang at his own level and arranged the songs accordingly.
It's a simple enough breakthrough, but that realization led to the best record the singer has made so far. On King of California, with producer Greg Leisz, he took his most intimate songs, dusted them off, and gave them spare, acoustic settings that showed how gorgeous they are. For the first time, the crinkles and sandpaper edges in Alvin's voice surfaced to complement his songs' microscopic emotional observations. On the other hand, the freshly-written title track used a simple acoustic guitar pattern to back up an epic tale of a man going to seek the fortune he needs to make his lover his bride.
For those few fans who saw King as something like a glorified greatest hits disc, Alvin returned with Blackjack David, an all-original collection in the same acoustic vein, and another record that's devoted to generations-old folk songs. A new album, Out In California, is due next month. Meanwhile, roadhouse tours have proved that a live Dave Alvin show can still bring a house down Blasters-style.
Sunday's gig, which will feature an acoustic trio, shouldn't be that kind of barn burning. But having seen his band in various configurations, I feel safe saying it'll be a crowd pleaser — and in saying that the audience's coolest gals will be, for a couple of hours, somewhat harder to distract than usual. Which is okay, because any halfway hip cat will be watching the stage anyway.
DAVE ALVIN (ACOUSTIC TRIO)
Sunday, April 21
Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings
2 CDs, Rhino Records