Dave Alvin made his name as the lead guitarist of the Blasters, but since leaving that band in 1986 he's recorded seven solo albums, documenting a darker, subtler, and more stylistically varied side of his musical personality. Though none of the tunes on his new Public Domain (Hightone) are his own, Alvin claims in the liner notes that these traditional blues and bluegrass numbers, hymns, murder ballads, and workingman's songs have defined how he's heard, played, and written music for his entire career--he's known most of them since he was a teenager, when he and his brother used to search thrift stores and swap meets for old vinyl. On the album's opener, the folkie chestnut "Shenandoah," Alvin's gravelly baritone calls to mind the steadfastness and longing of an old-time pioneer, while his soaring guitar leads sparkle with rock 'n' roll energy. His limited vocal range turns out to be a blessing on "The Murder of the Lawson Family," a nightmarish tune originally recorded by the Carolina Buddies in the 1920s--when he quavers or stumbles over an octave leap, it sounds as though he's overcome by the horrible tale he's telling. Unfortunately, his version of "Railroad Bill," a traditional ballad about an African-American train robber who became a folk hero, goes down a little too easy, without the bitterness the song seems to demand. And on Blind Willie McTell's "Mama, Ain't Long for Day," Alvin's guitar sounds uncharacteristically leaden--just anonymous strumming, with no shuffle or swing. He does better by McTell on "Delia," artfully evoking the Georgia guitar master's fleet fingerpicking and ironic, offhand vocal delivery. Despite his reverence for early-20th-century music, though, Alvin's still a rocker at heart: he and his band the Guilty Men transform the bluegrass standard "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" into a raucous juke-joint boogie and turn in a greasy, exuberant cover of "Walk Right In"--first recorded by Memphis jug-band leader Gus Cannon in the 1920s--that's sure to blindside anybody who's only heard the emasculated Rooftop Singers version that charted at number one in 1963. Performances like Alvin's are a reminder that southern string bands, which evolved side by side with early blues, prefigured the more sophisticated groups that would give birth to modern urban blues, country and western, and rock 'n' roll. Saturday, October 14, 7:30 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen W. Smith.