Much the way Robbie Robertson served as the creative mainspring for the Band, guitarist/writer Dave Alvin was the guiding force behind the Blasters, providing his brother, singer Phil Alvin, with stellar, Americana-soaked tunes. After leaving that band (high and dry) and joining X for a short stint, Alvin embarked on what could have been an ill-fated solo career: “blessed” with the kind of raspy, technically suspect voice that would only be tolerated in rock’n’roll, Alvin has continued to pen emotionally powerful tunes of everyday life, while putting his limited abilities as a singer to surprisingly good use.
Romeo’s Escape (released in the UK under the less catchy title Every Night About This Time) is a promising if ragged beginning that sets the tempo for subsequent works. The boy boogies (“New Tattoo”), celebrates the common man (“Brother on the Line”) and recycles his best compositions, including the Blasters’ “Long White Cadillac” and X’s “Fourth of July.” (They’re less polished here, and plenty persuasive.) If his first try as a lead singer won’t win Dave any awards, his hoarse delivery is more expressive than many technically superior vocalists. The contents are familiar roots rock and country, ranging from scorching boogie (“New Tattoo”) to the weary testimony of a union man (“Brother on the Line”).
Leaving the major-label ranks, Alvin resettled on the rootsy indie Hightone, a more appropriate home for his rough-hewn art. Alvin began to hit his stride with Blue Blvd. The grooves are familiar, touching on everything from spirituals (“Gospel Night”) to mutant Chicago blues (“Brand New Heart”) and moody acoustic laments (“Dry River”). Though Alvin’s in good company — the cast includes Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, ex-Blasters sax great Lee Allen and California cowpoke Dwight Yoakam — his no-frills singing sometimes fails to hold the spotlight, especially when the backing players crank up.
Museum of Heart is a more relaxed and assured work — Alvin will never give Pavarotti pause, but he’s comfortable within his narrow range, letting his pithy songwriting carry the load. Among the highlights are “A Woman’s Got a Right” (a nasty putdown of a rejected lover), the greasy “Burning in Water Drowning in Flame,” the sorrowful “As She Slowly Turns to Leave” and the stark, scary “Stranger in Town” (not the Del Shannon song, but undoubtedly inspired by it). Guests include Syd Straw and X’s John Doe. Why don’t more people cover this guy’s stuff? Bruce Springsteen, for one, would benefit enormously by sampling Alvin’s more diverse material.
A stripped-down acoustic record (if he were a bigger star, it’d be marketed as his long-awaited unplugged album), King of California mixes moldy blues (“Mother Earth”), new tunes (the almost funky “Barn Burning”) and yet one more review of his “greatest hits,” including “Fourth of July,” “Every Night About This Time,” “Little Honey” and “Border Radio.” These renditions can safely stand as the definitive versions. Amidst the steel guitars, mandolins and acoustic guitars, Alvin finally seems comfortable at the mic, confidently emphasizing the content of the songs instead of trying to put on a big show. And don’t miss the poignant duet with Syd Straw on the George Jones heartbreaker “What Am I Worth.”
Interstate City, recorded live at the Continental Club in Austin in mid-’96 with the Guilty Men (pianist Rick Solem, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks, steel guitar player Greg Leisz and bassist Gregory Boaz), includes new songs, Blasters oldies and solo album selections.
Public Domain, subtitled Songs From the Wild Land, is the rootsiest record in a rootsy career: the songs he does with a band here, including “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” “Delia” and “What Did the Deep Sky Say,” are as American as the Mississippi mud.
Alvin produced, arranged and contributes guitar to Tennessee Border, starring rockabilly cult figure Sonny Burgess, one of the great overlooked talents of ye olden days. While Burgess, having grown noticeably hoarser over the years, is no longer quite the wildman who belted out “Red Headed Woman” for Sun Records back in the ’50s, this is still a solid set of honky-tonk rock’n’country, highlighted by a rollicking cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “Old, Old Man.” Burgess deserves the same respect accorded more celebrated peers like Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, though he’ll probably never get it.
The Border Radio soundtrack is a decent bunch of odds’n’ends featuring Alvin, Chris D., Green on Red and members of X and Los Lobos. Tony Kinman of Rank and File delivers a nice, lazy version of Dave’s title track (originally on Alvin’s own LP); Alvin and Steve Berlin contribute ambient instrumentals. Mainly for completists.