Alvin Brothers Breathe New Life Into Pre-War Blues and Brotherhood

The Alvin brothers
The Alvin brothers
Beth Herzhaft

Brothers Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin have made musical careers of taking what was once old and making it new again. In some cases, the two who were the creating force behind acclaimed roots rock 'n' roll band The Blasters, have also created new music that you could swear was from a by-gone era when original music was recorded on vinyl for audiences steeped in blues, country, folk and of course early rock.

Like most brothers, the two siblings, who formed The Blasters in 1979, have quarreled during the past 35 years. But in the past two years, time has healed wounds, even one that came dangerously close to having Phil meet his maker.

But a brush with death has a way of reconciling brothers. The key, then, was to find one thing they could agree on, and apparently, that was easy.

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"We argue a lot but we never argue about Big Bill Broonzy," Dave says, and Phil agrees.

"He [Dave] called me up and said he wanted to make an EP, and I said sure; I was happy being a lifelong Big Bill fan. It's great to work with David again," Phil says.

The culmination of this reunion was the aptly-titled, Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy, released in June of last year. And while the ability to play together is center to this remarkable comeback, the album has even garnered the duo a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album.

"Stunned. It's just always from left field, that kind of thing," notes Dave on the award bid, his second, after winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 2000. "You're just stunned, and my brother is stunned too. And it's nice to see him stunned."

To which Phil added, "It's exciting and pretty surprising, and a great honor."

The 12-song homage to Broonzy, one of the pioneering blues and later folk artists of the Pre-WWII era, captures the essence of the legend from Jefferson County, Arkansas. From the Southern blues-tinged standard, "Key to The Highway," foot-stompin' raw, porch rocker "How You Want It Done" and rockabilly-swing-flavored "Truckin' Little Woman." Common Ground simultaneously allows Dave to re-interpret songs, and on others showcases Phil's unique old-school style vocals to revive and even liven up the famous Broonzy voice that the two first heard as teens.

"It was at a Two Guy's department store; I don't think they exist anymore," recalls Phil, now 61. "I saw the picture on the cover, and the guy [Broonzy] looked so slick, and I liked blues, [so] I bought it and brought it home. When I put it on, I had never really hard that kind of blues before. I was taken by Big Bill's voice and guitar playing, as was David, and I became a Big Bill fan for life."

The Alvin boys grew up in Downey, California, 13 miles southeast of LA, raised by parents Cass and Eleanor Alvin. The Alvin house was always alive with music. And yet aside from AM radio, it was their cousins that influenced the two brothers on the likes of Lightning Hopkins, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, and other, lesser-known blues, folk and jazz artists.

"My cousin Donna was a '50s rock 'n' roll gal," says Dave, 59. "She loved rhythm and blues and Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner and Doo-Wop and Carl Perkins. Our cousin Mike Heller was a folky, and he had albums and had albums by Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. And then our cousin JJ Alvin lived on a ranch and he was into Buck Owens and music like that."

It was this same diversity in musical tastes of the Alvins that expanded the various audiences that Broonzy won over in the '20s, '30s and '40s. This versatility of musical styles would be at the heart of the budding brothers musical beginnings, years later, and inevitably made The Blasters shine, during the '80s rockabilly revival that saw the coming and going of many fad bands.

The Blasters -- with Dave on guitar, Phil on vocals, guitar and harmonica, John Bazz on Bass and Billy Bateman on drums, Gene Taylor on piano and legend Lee Alvin on sax -- reached a status of critical acclaim from the music press, but real chart and popular success eluded the band.

After four acclaimed albums, American Music, The Blasters, Non-Fiction, and Hard Line released between 1980 and 1985, the band broke up. After short stints with X, Dave struck out on his own solo career and big brother Phil got his degrees at Long Beach State in mathematics and artificial intelligence.

Phil would however, soon gravitate back to The Blasters and has since persevered, with two more Blasters' releases, and even a few solo albums of his own, Un "Sung Stories" in 1986 and County Fair in 1994.

Move ahead to 2012, and Dave has organically created a name for himself as a solo artist while Phil and the Blasters keep playing. But it would be a fearful and yet fateful tour stop in Valencia Spain, that would stop the brothers' world from spinning.

After an infection caused Phil's throat to swell up and stop him from breathing while on stage he had to have an emergency tracheotomy performed after flat-lining twice. Alvin survived the scare and continued on with his band, but the brothers suddenly saw the impermanence of life and Dave called his older brother and the rest is rock and roll history 101.

"We're different guys now than we were 30-some years ago," acknowledges Dave. "I say I am not as stupid and he says he's not as loud. and, I think there's a mutual respect now that maybe there wasn't as much in the past."

Phil second that sentiment. "We always got along, you know, like brothers and brothers fight, but this has been very smooth. The audiences have been so great everywhere, so accepting and welcoming of this brother event and that's been a great thing."

The Alvin boys were weaned on the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightning Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Junior Wells and Brownie McGhee. Big Bill stood above the rest though.

"Big Bill played in a multiplicity of styles, from country blues to small bands with horns in it, and eventually into the folks scene," schools Dave. "He was a great songwriter. His styles changed. Big Bill allowed you to put it in a variety of different styles. He was a particularly loved character at the Alvin house.

"In those old recordings and old songs, there's a magic and a power and a mysterious quality of this is familiar and yet its form another world. You could peel back this layer of polite modern society and there's this wild world underneath; it had these amazing characters and amazing music."

And what is not as amazing as it might seem, the Alvins have always enjoyed playing together, but what has surfaced more so with the passage of time, is their mutual appreciation and respect for each other.

On one hand, Dave who has a dozen solo albums, has toured extensively with his solo project bands The Guilty Men, The Guilty Women and even LA local legends the Flesheaters. his guitar style is unmistakably his.

Brother Phil's vocals conjure up old-time blues and big band vocals the likes of Cab Calloway whom he covered on his Un "Sung Stories" right after the Blaster first split up in 1985) and others who made pitch-perfect, crystal-clear enunciation and delivery the rule rather than the exception.

"I can respect his voice, especially on the Big Bill kind of songs," credits Dave. "He was born to song that kind of thing. That factored into what songs were chosen; some of the songs he had been singing since he was 13 years old. we just let it happen. We did two sessions. we just gathered the musicians in a circle, plugged in and pressed record. It was really that simple."

"It's very unique; it's old-school. It's the way people used to sing. It's in the tradition of Big Bill Broonzy and Big Joe Turner and even (Bing) Crosby. It's an old-style way of singing that most people can't sing. Phil's voice is from another era. Some people get that, and some people don't. He just has a very unique and beautiful gift that I wish I had.

Phil returns the favor.

"When it started (Dave's guitar playing) was very hard-hitting blues-rock-and-roll. He plays in a lot of minor modes, he has become a remarkable stylist. I am really proud of him, and he's developed a style that utilizes the features of his voice really well."

Dave gets in the last words.

"What's nice now, is there's a hard-earned mutual respect. A lot of the things that I used to argue with my brother about were before I was a band leader. Being a band leader changes things. I could be putting words into my brother's mouth, but I don't think he thought I could have a solo career that lasted as long as it has. So I think there is a respect for both of our survivals."

Even as the rocking sibling survivors return to solo and band gigs respectively, the chances of working together in the future now seem more plausible. For now, they prefer to pick on their guitars more so now than on each other.

Phil Alvin and Dave Alvin are scheduled to play the Rhythm Room on Wednesday, January 28.

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