They say everything old becomes new again, and California’s Blasters proved it in 1981 by jumping into the national spotlight with an utterly familiar brew of blues, rockabilly and rock’n’roll. Detractors might call them little more than an updated Canned Heat — as if anything were wrong with that — but such criticism ignores their strengths: tight ensemble work, swingin’ original tunes in the classic mold and Phil Alvin’s ageless, confident vocals.
American Music appeared on an independent rockabilly revival label, which is probably one reason it didn’t reach a larger audience. The band already had total control of R&B and rock conventions, fusing them into a supple, flowing style. Although there’s not quite as much sting here as later on, Dave Alvin’s guitar work displays plenty of spirit. Oldies like “Buzz Buzz Buzz” and “I Wish You Would” (Billy Boy Arnold via the Yardbirds) mingle with catchy new tunes like “Marie, Marie,” later a big UK hit for Shakin’ Stevens.
The Blasters established the quintet nationwide. Originally released on LA independent Slash, it did so well that the label was able to strike a licensing/distribution deal with Warner Bros. No wonder: it smokes. The band is tighter than a drum, and Dave Alvin’s songs — including “No Other Girl,” a re-recorded “Marie, Marie” and “Border Radio” — have a joyous, irresistible momentum. R&B legend Lee Allen guests on sax.
Highlighted by a crackling hot sound, the six-cut live in London EP serves as a good introduction to the Blasters, but offers no new wrinkles. Definitely suitable for parties, though.
Any lingering suspicions that the Blasters were just an oldies band at heart were surely dispelled by the fine Non Fiction. Dave Alvin’s essay on real life, the LP presents a series of well-crafted vignettes reminiscent of Robbie Robertson’s work with the Band. Songs like “One More Dance” and “Fool’s Paradise” depict the trials and tribulations of the little people, while “Long White Cadillac” laments Hank Williams. The playing on the self-produced record is smoother and not as quaint as before.
A shade less stirring than Non Fiction, Hard Line reprises that LP’s formula, but also includes a blatant stab at commercialism. Although “Colored Lights,” penned for the Blasters by John Cougar Mellencamp, isn’t bad, other songs are more heartfelt. Highlights include “Trouble Bound” and “Help You Dream,” both featuring the Jordanaires (of Elvis Presley fame for you young’uns).
In 1986, Dave Alvin left to join X, briefly replacing Billy Zoom; he soon moved on to launch his own solo career. But he also worked on other people’s projects; for instance, backing Syd Straw on her ’89 tour. Alvin’s replacement in the Blasters was a guitarist known as Hollywood Fats (Michael Mann), who tragically died a few months later, bringing Alvin briefly back into the fold. Ironically, Billy Zoom later joined the Blasters, who have been less active since Phil Alvin began attending graduate school.
The Blasters Collection assembles 20 tracks, including three previously unreleased numbers.