By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch


February 10, 2005

Photo by Issa Sharp/Yep Roc Records
"Great band, bad singer." That's Dave Alvin's review of his first solo album, "Romeo's Escape," released in 1987 after he had left the Blasters, a hot band that fused rockabilly and R&B in punk-obsessed Southern California.

"Romeo" marked the first time Alvin had sung his own songs. While he was the chief songwriter and lead guitarist in the Blasters, the singing was done by his brother Phil.

"It doesn't bother me now, but it bothered me for a long time," says Alvin, who leads his band, the Guilty Men, into Blueberry Hill's Duck Room tonight. "I had never sung before, and I had to get drunk to do it. So when I listen to it, I hear a drunk caterwauling. Now, I'm more gentle about it. It's taken a lot of years to figure out how to sing."

That maturing process has also caused Alvin to re-record many of his earliest songs, several because he'd never sung them in the Blasters, but others just to improve them.

Three songs from "Romeo" -- "Fourth of July," "Every Night About This Time" and the Blasters' "Border Radio" -- show up again on Alvin's fourth solo, "King of California," in 1994. Not coincidentally, this album marks Alvin's turn toward more acoustic music, which would flower with his CD of traditional American music, "Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land," in 2000. That CD won a Grammy in 2001 for best traditional folk album.

"I have no problem with redoing songs over the years," Alvin says. "Duke Ellington, Mingus, Monk, they all did it -- not that I'm equating myself with them. Duke Ellington's version of 'Sophisticated Lady' from 1941 is different from his version in 1958. They take on different meanings and colorations. But, yeah, I also wanted to get certain songs right."

"Bus Station," a character study of a couple waiting on a bench that was recently covered by his pals Tom Russell and Nanci Griffith, is a good example. The Blasters' version is sung by Phil Alvin in that band's trademark, pedal-to-the-metal style. But it became much more emotional -- and beautiful -- when it was finally slowed down.

"Sometimes songs become prisoners of time and place," Alvin says of "Bus Station." "In the days of the Blasters, it was difficult to convince the band, and maybe the audience, too, to accept us doing slower material.

"When I did 'Bus Station' for 'King of California,' I wanted to get it right. That was a song on which I figured out that I was a songwriter. I don't know where songs come from. I'm sure you can teach the nuts and bolts of it, but, in general, I don't know where they come from."

Alvin's songs took root in Downey, Calif., a blue-collar town where Dave and Phil's dad was an organizer for the steelworkers' union. The brothers heard stories about that life growing up, and an interest -- a rooting interest -- in the common man is obvious in Dave's songwriting.

"(Dad) taught us that there were always two or three sides to every story," Alvin says. "He didn't trust a lot of people. He was a skeptical idealist, and that's sort of what I am, too."

Alvin the skeptic writes songs whose characters are facing challenges. But Alvin the idealist tries to give them a way out.

"I always try to leave a little kind of hope at the end, because some of my songs can get pretty bleak," Alvin says. "Playing music for 20 years as a profession, for me that's the reason I get out of bed in the morning. Every day you want to get better, be a better musician. So for the characters in my songs, I try to give them a reason to get out of bed."

Dave and Phil Alvin started haunting nightclubs such as the Ashgrove when Dave was about 12, relying on older cousins and neighborhood friends "who had really good taste in music" for guidance.

"We thought we were pretty hip," Alvin says. "Whether we were or not, we thought so. Phil was a couple of years older and more outgoing and gregarious. I was more of a shy kid."

As the Alvin brothers became familiar to the musicians and began to play in public, they were taken under the wings of players such as saxophone great Lee Allen, who eventually played with the Blasters. Allen and Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker essentially mentored these two white kids who were hanging around soaking up the music and stage moves of the old pros.

"When it was going on, we didn't know what was going on," Alvin says. "It wasn't till later in life that it dawned on me, my God, we were given a rare little gift. Other musicians had that, too. In fact, most musicians who tend to hang in for the long haul tend to come from backgrounds like that, whether they were mentored by Doc Watson or Lightning Hopkins or Chuck Berry.

"In hindsight, it was pretty special. The main thing I learned, also in hindsight, was sort of survival techniques. Some guys were bitter and angry," Alvin says of the old musicians, many of whom were cheated out of money and bigger careers. "And some were bitter and angry and knew how to deal with that. A lot of what we learned was how to deal with it."

Alvin and the Guilty Men are dealing quite well. "Ashgrove," Alvin's latest CD, is a return to a more electric sound that gives Alvin more space to soar on guitar. The title cut tells the story of the days when the Alvin brothers hung out at the clubs.

One of many standout tracks on "Ashgrove" is "Nine Volt Heart," about a character who takes refuge in the tiny plastic box that gives out the music that soothes his soul. It's the second great song Alvin has written about radio, after 1981's "Border Radio." That tune tells the story of a woman dedicating love songs "to a man who's gone," on "pirate" radio stations in Mexico that used to blast rock 'n' roll into the States.

"When I wrote 'Nine Volt Heart' with Ron Hodges, as we were writing it, part of my brain was going, 'You've done the radio thing, Dave,' " Alvin laughs.

"But this was less exclusive, more inclusive. Everyone of a certain age went through the transistor-radio period, but not everyone went through a border-radio period. For me, radio growing up was just a huge, huge thing, it's where I got a lot of my initial musical education.

"One of the reasons I still do this after 8 million years is that there was a very strong romance to playing music, and the way you hear music for the first time in your life kind of creates that romance.

"You have to keep your love for the music. I've been very fortunate that I've never really lost that. At this point, I really don't have any love for the road. All that romance is gone. But I get two hours onstage where I can make time stand still."