Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Riding With Ghosts Past Midnight: Dave Alvin live

22 SEPTEMBER, 2012
"In my church, you can have a drink..."
It hardly seems five years since the last time I saw Dave Alvin grace the tiny stage at SLO Brew in San Luis Obispo, but a lot of living has gone down since then, a lot of miles on the highway.  California's unofficial Poet Laureate came in to town with his current outfit, The Guilty Ones, and proceeded to observe the fact that it was Saturday night by laying down a raucous set, pausing only to tip his hat to those who haven't made it this far on this journey.  The Guilty Ones are drummer Lisa Pankratz, Brad Fordham on bass, and guitarist Chris Miller.

Alvin is the maker of a righteous stew of blues, soul, folk, and country-referring to it simply as: American Music, and for converts and uninitiated alike, it's a heady brew.  While the setlist contained less than a dozen songs, in the hands of The Guilty Ones, it was a solid two hour show. Songs routinely ran past five minutes and beyond, but the soloing was focused, and in service of the songs.  Opening with "4th of July", Alvin interspersed songs from his most recent LP, Eleven Eleven, with staples of his songbook.  "Harlan County Line", a well earned lucky break by its inclusion in FX TV's "Justified" led the charge, along with "Black Rose Of Texas" and "Run Conejo Run", salutes to past band members Amy Farris and Chris Gaffney.  A brief snatch of "Please Forgive Me" was the perfect setup for his ode to the tragic end of Johnny Ace, "Johnny Ace Is Dead".  "Long White Cadillac", the Hank Williams tribute that dates back to his days with his brother Phil in The Blasters, made an appearance as well, with Dave giving thanks to Dwight Yoakam's country hit cover, but noting that "Nobody, but nobody, sings this song like my brother."

 Alvin's beloved California, overtly or covertly, was always present.  From citing Coalinga and his grandparents in "King Of California", to his own roots in Downey, ("Dry River"), to the landmark folk and blues club "Ashgrove", that gave name to the song that's become his anthem, his gift is reaching beyond the stereotypes of the state and looking at people's lives away from the bright lights.  The first time I heard "Ashgrove" performed, years ago, it was a revelation, simultaneously an acknowledgement of roots, and a preview of a return to a harder edged bluesy sound.  When the LP, (Ashgrove), was released, it certainly lived up to that promise, and in concert the song grew to be a focal point.  Like Alvin's career as an under appreciated journeyman who keeps honing his craft, out on the road, "Ashgrove" keeps its promises.

It's hard to pick one highlight from the night, but an unforgettable moment was opening his encore with a tip of the hat to the late Joe South, before proceeding to sing the ass off of South's hit "Games People Play."  Amid the volume-soaked night, it wasn't all doom and gloom, as Dave alluded to, and later followed up with a story of a recent Phil health scare, neatly dropping into another Blasters classic, "Marie Marie", with the band at full throttle, putting a punctuation on the night.  While just another date in a tattered logbook, for us it was a night of communion with an American original.

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