The brothers who made up The Blasters find common ground after lost time.
Dave Alvin and his brother Phil made up the core of one of the most memorable bands of the ’80s, The Blasters, a whirling dervish of a blues-rockabilly-rock and roll band that would tattoo itself on your brain after you saw one of their rip roaring, hip shakin’ sets, one of which was a high profile one at Farm Aid. Phil’s vocals and Dave’s guitar were the pistons that drove the Blasters’ engine.
But Dave left the band in 1986 to embark on a successful solo run and The Blasters evolved into a couple decades of intermittent gigs, reunion tours and live albums. The brothers kept in touch as they navigated their next chapters apart, but years later, a near fatal illness almost cost Phil Alvin his life. It’s funny, and often poignant, what happens between brothers when you almost lose one.
“(Phil) was on tour with his band The Blasters over in Spain,” Dave recalled for me when we talked recently as he and Phil ratcheted up their tour that stops at The Birchmere on Halloween. “I got a call in California saying…it’s a long story what happened…but he was brain-dead for at least ten minutes. Got the call that he was dead, and then the call that they brought him back to life. Your brain gets filled with a lot of regrets and second guessing. That’s where these records come from. When he was healthy enough to go in to record, that was like, that’s all I care about right now.”
The records Dave Alvin is referring to are not Blasters records, but two very special albums recorded with his brother in the wake of Phil’s near death: 2014’s “Common Ground” and their latest collaboration “Lost Time” (2015). So for Dave, did the new record evolve the same way as the first one, in that it was another opportunity to work with Phil?
“Pretty much the same way, just wanted to record as much as I could with my brother. The thing that I’ve learned over the past few years is, well, you don’t know how much time you got left.”
The Alvin Brothers grew up in California, and their musical evolution was certainly accelerated by both who they kept company with and who they saw live.
“We were really fortunate,” Dave remembered. “Especially in roots music, being able to hang out with your heroes doesn’t hurt. Perhaps our biggest mentor was a blues shouter from Kansas City, Big Joe Turner. He’d been living on the West Coast since the late ’50s. We were barely teenagers, and it was a huge, huge, huge influence on us. We followed him around, as well as T-Bone Walker and guys like that, from gig to gig. I also saw Jimi Hendrix when I was a kid, saw him twice, once at the Forum in LA and the other at a local music festival. You see that at that impressionable age and you just go, well, that’s it, that’s what I want to do. I don’t know how I’ll do it, but that’s what I want to do.”
Legends like Turner and Walker helped the still-novice Alvin Brothers learn the ropes, not only helping them with their chops but giving them advice Dave says kept him sane through what’s often been an insane music career. It’s advice he lives by to this day.
“You could not only hear the music and see where their fingers were on the guitar neck or how they sang, but you could also ask them stupid questions, you know? You get to learn little survival techniques, for lack of a better term. Like one night you see these guys playing in front of 300 people and the next night, you’d follow ’em to some bar where they’d be playing in front of 30 people. The survivor psychology that you have to develop to get through that is one of the things that you have to learn. ‘Cause doing this for a living can get pretty depressing at times. But you have to go back and remember those life lessons. Big Joe Turner could say certain zen-like things. One of my favorites was when I was about 14 years old, I asked Big Joe about playing to a big crowd one night and nothing the next, and he looked at me like I just fell off a turnip truck and said, ‘Well, sometimes there’s people, and sometimes there ain’t.’ That carried me through a lot of my career.”
Dave is very proud of his work with The Blasters (who wouldn’t be?), but he wanted to make these solo records with Phil something unique and special, something only the two brothers could do together.
“The thing that’s made The Blasters unique from other blues/R&B/revival bands was two things: one was my brother’s voice, and two, was my songs. And what I wanted to do on these records was, I didn’t want to make a Blasters record, ‘cuz the Blasters record should probably have all Dave Alvin songs. I wanted these records to be about the two Alvin brothers.”
Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin perform on Saturday, October 31 at The Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA. For tickets click here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover bands Second Wind and Heywoodja plus a Rolling Stones cover band and other local rock ensembles.