"I hope so?"
Dave Alvin has just had a road first after more than 30 years of touring. He stepped out of a Cracker Barrel outside Beaumont, Texas to talk on the phone, and he sat on a rock. Minutes into the interview, he's startled to see his boots are covered in ants and that the rock is next to an anthill. "This has never happened before."
Alvin plays the Rock 'n' Bowl Saturday night, and he has played the blues and rock 'n' roll since he was a young teen in Downey, California. He started touring California, the Southwest, Texas and Louisiana in 1980 with the Blasters.
"We played Tipitina's as a four-piece," he says. At that time, they were Alvin, his brother Phil on vocals, bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman. Their Slash Records' debut album in 1981 introduced them to the world and a larger lineup that included pianist Gene Taylor and the saxophone duo of Steve Berlin and J&M Studios stalwart Lee Allen.
"It was primarily a rockabilly crowd," Alvin says of his first night at Tip's. "We had a party afterward that got pretty wild."
The Alvins met Allen through Phil Alvin's manager, a West Coast jump blues singer named Mary Franklin. Her circle of friends included T-Bone Walker, Allen and a number of other Los Angeles-based R&B and blues men. "They were great teachers, and they wanted to teach somebody."
The Alvin brothers were always blues and R&B obsessives, and once they knew Allen, they started digging up everything they could find that he played on. "We could tell instantly," Alvin says. "He had a melodic sense that was clearly Lee Allen. They first bumped into South Louisiana's eccentricity when they quizzed him about a single they'd found - "Rich Woman" by "L'il Millay" - as they said it.
"We figured you had to pronounce it French," Alvin says. He remembers Allen's response:
"L'il Millay? Nope. Never made a record with L'il Millay."
Dave and Phil insisted it had to be him on the single, but Allen couldn't remember it. After about five minutes, he said, "Oh, you mean L'il Millet. Yeah, that was me."
Alvin credits Allen for having eclectic tastes, and he showed the brothers how music is connected. Once he was in the band, they wrote the Longhair-flavored "Hollywood Bed" as a showpiece for Allen. He also influenced how Alvin thinks about soloing on the guitar. "When Lee played a solo, you always knew it was Lee, and there was a melodic aspect to it," he says. "I always approached soloing less like a guitar player and more like Lee Allen on sax. The Blasters stuff was geared around a short solo - make it melodic and get to the point. These days I'll meander, looking for things while I'm playing a lead, but you always want to get to the point. It may be a short point or a long point, but you want to get there."
Most of the lessons they learned from Allen were bigger picture things. "He hipped us to things other younger bands had never heard of, like publishing," Alvin says. "An overall how to view the record industry. Perhaps a little cynically or guardedly, but those are good things to know when you're starting out." According to Alvin, Allen felt burned that his solos and the work of the bands played such a major role in the success of many New Orleans R&B hits, but they didn't share in the money. "But he kept playing, and that was another lesson we learned. You just keep playing. Bitterness wasn't his personality."
As a rockabilly and rockin' blues band out of Downey, the Blasters had a tough time getting a foothold in Los Angeles at first. "We couldn't get gigs in Hollywood because we weren't from Hollywood," he says. "We didn't know the people in Hollywood. We'd go around the southeast side of L.A. trying to get gigs and audition in bars and they,d say, 'You don't sound like Cheap Trick. The kids love Cheap Trick.' I like Cheap Trick, but it would have been ridiculous for us to try to sound like Cheap Trick." By the time of the release of the band's self-titled first album on Slash, they'd become big enough to play four nights a week in Los Angeles, and in a two-week stretch opened for Asleep at the Wheel, Queen, the Cramps and the Go-Gos.
"It was pretty cool," Alvin says. "We formed in springtime of 1979 and that came out in early 1981, and we all went from day jobs to having a record in Time Magazine's top 10 records of the year. That post-first album rush, that's the closest we got to being the Beatles."
Today, Alvin is an Americana icon. He has approached American roots music with stoic grace and a poet's consciousness (He has written one book of poetry, Any Rough Times Are Behind You Now). On 1994's King of California, he slowed down the Blasters' "Border Radio" to draw attention to the heartbreak that got swept up in the energetic rush of the original. His deep voice is an apt instrument to document the loss that he's experienced over the years, but he does so without forcing or belaboring the drama. The title track from 2004's Ashgrove celebrates a blues bar that was important to his development, but it could also serve as a statement of purpose: "I'm going to play the blues tonight / because that's what I do."
On Eleven Eleven, Alvin's electric guitar returns to the forefront. His preference for the acoustic guitar on recent albums was largely a practical decision. "My voice tends to work better in an acoustic context," he says. "I'm not a singer like my brother is who can overpower a whole band with the majesty of his throat." The album has more in common with the rocking Ashgrove than 2009's Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, and it closes on a charming note with "Two Lucky Bums," a duet with the late Chris Gaffney. Gaffney was a songwriter and singer on his own as well as a member of Alvin's road band and half of the Hacienda Brothers with Dave Gonzales.
"We thought if we ever make millions of dollars - so immediately we're entering fantasyland here - we were going to buy this little ghost town in New Mexico called Cuervo," Alvin says. Their ideas for the ghost town became a regular topic for discussion on long drives between gigs, and those plans grew more and more absurd. At one point, the decided they should make a Bob Hope and Big Crosby-like movie, The Road to Cuervo.
"If we can't do all that, at least we should make a duet record, a thematic record of us buying this ghost town and fixing it up," Alvin says. They finished one song, "Two Lucky Bums" before Gaffney passed away from cancer in 2008. "I thought, 'This is how the record ends,'"
Eleven Eleven also includes an unexpected duet with Alvin's brother Phil. The two have had a famously strained relationship, so much so that Dave couldn't get escape talking about it. One night he was playing a club that had no bathroom in the dressing room. "Ten or 15 minutes before I went onstage, I went to the bathroom," he says. "I'm standing there and a guy comes up and says, 'Hey Dave, what's your brother up to?' After the show was over and people had had a chance to leave, he went back to the bathroom. "I'm standing in front of a urinal and another guy comes up to me and says, 'Hey Dave, what's up with your brother?'" Later that night, he wrote the first draft of the good-natured romp, "What's Up with Your Brother?"
"You grab songs wherever you can," he says, even in the john and perhaps on an anthill outside of Beaumont.