SCHUBAS, SEPTEMBER 7
Dave Alvin isn't a big man, but his broad shoulders, large head, and rawboned features--and his coarse, bottomless well of a voice--make him an imposing figure. Recording engineers and producers have brought that voice to normal proportions in the studio, but live there's no containing it. Even on the gentle, acoustic "King of California," the opener in his 21-song, two-hour performance at Schubas last Friday, his vocals filled the room. The musicians accompanying him--bass player/Billy Baldwin look-alike Greg Boaz, ex-Skeletons drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks, and keyboard player Rick Solem--provided broad, lyrical settings that suited Alvin's delivery while remaining tasteful and restrained enough not to overwhelm the music.
Maybe it's the need to match the scope and size of Alvin's voice that fuels his music's great breadth. Since his early-80s days with the Blasters, Alvin's built his songs on a musical foundation of American roots music that includes everything from blues, country, and rockabilly (his most prevalent influences) to R & B, folk, and gospel. Alvin retains the potency of these genres, neither diluting them with slick pop trappings like so many contemporary country musicians nor disfiguring them with garish excess a la most white blues singers. In return they imbue even his gentlest songs with weight, depth, and ruggedness. Alvin can deliver straightforward renditions of classic songs--as he did during his encore at Schubas, when he and guest artist Syd Straw reprised their duet version (from Alvin's new album) of George Jones's "What Am I Worth." But Alvin is no mere archivist: he freely mixes styles while honoring their nuances. Consider how he's recast "Little Honey" over the years: as Mississippi riverboat music, all high lonesome fiddles and shimmering mandolins, with the Blasters; as a blues-country ballad on the new King of California, a mostly acoustic collection of "old, new, borrowed and blue songs"; and at Schubas as gospel-inflected, Impressions-style soul music, riding a slow, taut groove to an exhilarating climax of slide guitar and church-organ flourishes.
Whatever genre he's drawing on, Alvin invests his songs, quiet and raucous alike, with a true believer's absolute conviction. Live--belting out songs with that grizzly bear voice, hurling his strapping frame away from the mike during instrumental passages, back arched, legs often spread-eagled--he made his songs seem occasions of great event. His commitment transported even slight material--the simple rockabilly rave-up "So Long Baby Goodbye" was thrilling for its unabashed rock and roll zest--and infused more complex songs with grandeur. "Fourth of July" remained as sweeping, heartbreaking, and inspiring as ever, with Alvin and Slocum's guitar-keyboards coda setting off fireworks of its own. Transmitting the dark undercurrents of his elegy for Hank Williams with spine-tingling effectiveness, Alvin began "Long White Cadillac" by singing to solo slide guitar lifted from Muddy Waters's "Rollin' Stone," then tore into the song with a raging vocal before concluding with a devastating guitar onslaught.
"Fourth of July" and "Long White Cadillac" also reveal Alvin's fascination with American myth, as does "Haley's Comet," his account of Bill "Rock Around the Clock" Haley's death in Mexico. He's a distinctively literary songwriter, setting scenes, outlining characters, and telling stories with a few deft strokes, and his lyrics incorporate not only America's iconography--from Independence Day to American musicians who die tragically--but also its history and literature. "King of California" is set during the California gold rush, while the stampeding "Jubilee Train" celebrates America's labor movement (and labor champion Woody Guthrie, as Alvin incorporated an oracular rendering of Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" into the middle of the song). Alvin's tastes in writing run toward 20th-century authors with dark streaks of their own and a preference for misfits and outsiders. If his evocation of Faulkner in "Barn Burning" stumbled over its ambitions, "Thirty Dollar Room," Alvin's idea of what would happen if "Raymond Chandler on a bender had written a song for Otis Rush," honored both artists. He paid tribute as well to Charles Bukowski's wife Linda with "Burning in Water Drowning in Flame," incongruously a sprightly piece of sock-hop rock and roll.
Sock-hop rock and Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler and the Impressions, gold prospectors and George Jones--Alvin's tastes are extraordinary in their inclusiveness. While the United States continues dividing itself into increasingly narrow and exclusive vested interests, Alvin's work holds faith with an idea of Americans as a united people with a common purpose. He treats the disparate genres and artists he loves as being of one piece: the fabric of American experience ("It's all the same goddamn three chords, it's all fucking folk music," he told the Schubas crowd at show's end). His is an America of labor leaders, literary outcasts, lost and lonely souls; tough characters weathering trying situations not unfeelingly but with resolve.
This fortitude, mirrored in Alvin's own perseverance in the face of commercial obscurity, is sadly missing in today's culture of complaint. There's a lot of pain in Alvin's songs, but you never hear any whining. His panoramic vision and natural fervor also stand in contrast with the diminished expectations and lack of faith rampant today. Standing tall, voice firm, he makes America and its culture seem positively grand.