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Roots are what music is all about

Michael Stuart enjoys catching up with a cult America band

Last night (Friday 24th October) I crossed town to the Islington Assembly Hall in order to join my brother and a pal on a pilgrimage to see Dave and Phil Alvin, sibling kernels of cult American rockabilly/R & B/Americana band The Blasters, on their latest (‘and The Guilty Ones’) UK tour.

[Travel notes first – I’d allowed myself 90 minutes to get there and arrived ten minutes late, due entirely to the weight of humanity in motion during the London rush-hour. Stupidly but perhaps inevitably, now removed from the hustle and bustle of working life, I’d forgotten quite how stressful commuting can be. Twice on a platform – once at a railway station and once underground – I opted out of squeezing myself into a proverbial sardine can and instead waited for the next train in the hope of gaining a seat.]

The immediate omens upon entering the venue, the inside of which I learned was a restored version of the original that had gone to dereliction and back, were disappointing.

Five minutes before the advertised 7.45pm kick-off there were less than 200 people in the hall. Was this a ill-informed case of bad manners and/or an indicator of north London – or indeed British – indifference to such legendary artistes? The truth was probably slightly more prosaic. There was a support act – a British male/female folk-country duo whose recent (and possibly only) claim to fame had been appearing on ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris’s radio show for BBC Radio Oxford – who, as is the nature of things – were competent but little more.

Phil & Dave Alvin

Phil & Dave Alvin

At 9.00pm on the nail, the Alvins and their band – Chris Miller on guitar, Brad Fordham on bass and Fordham’s wife Lisa Pankratz on drums, all outstanding – took to the stage.

My first reaction was “Bugger me, Phil’s lost a ton of weight!” (probably somewhere between two and three stone, 30 to 40 pounds if you’re North American). It turned out from the between-song banter, led by Dave Alvin, that Phil had endured an unspecified ‘near death’ medical incident whilst in Spain a year or so ago.

Phil certainly looked a shadow of his former self and generally a bit wan and weak. Dave kept ladling on how much he loved and revered his older brother (lead vocalist of The Blasters) – Dave is 58, Phil 61 – and it was clear that they were enjoying playing together again. Since the mid-1980s, when Dave first left The Blasters, that hasn’t always been the case – indeed, once or twice Dave made humorous references to their ‘difficult’ relationship (“Phil and I agree on this … it’s about the only thing we have agreed upon in the last thirty years” or similar).

Without a doubt this was a great night, one of the best concerts I’ve attended in the last decade.

The Alvin’s band was as tight as a drum and, from the first twiddling guitar intro that soon descended into a familiar driving rhythm, the audience knew it was in for a treat. Special mention in dispatches must go to the Alvins themselves, Dave on guitar/vocals and Phil (vocals, acoustic guitar and mouth harp).

Lisa Pankratz

Lisa Pankratz

The subtext for the evening was Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin play and sing the songs of Big Bill Broonzy, a recently-issued album that they were promoting, and for the first forty minutes or so they featured songs from that – Dave duly announced that Broonzy (1893-1958) had been their first and lasting musical influence, citing a 1929 song of his as the first-ever rockabilly record.

It’s difficult to accurately describe to the uninitiated the style and status of musicians like the Alvin brothers in the pantheon of folk/rockabilly/Americana/punk/blues, simply because, outside of North America, the world don’t really produce musicians like them. In Britain I suppose we might refer to perennial touring ‘musicians’ musicians’ such as John Mayall, but otherwise the list is pitifully small.

The Alvins formed The Blasters in 1979, when Phil was 16 and Dave just 13, and in their first incarnation the band lasted until 1986 when Dave departed for his solo career. Relations between Dave and Phil had become a bit iffy by then and Phil subsequently headed a succession of Blasters’ incarnations up to about 2008.

My brother and I first ‘got into’ them in about 2005 when a Canadian relation (a fanatical Blasters’ fan) practically ordered us to go to Jongleurs in Camden to see The Blasters on their then European trip, simply and solely because Dave Alvin had re-joined the band for that tour only. Our relation was himself distraught at the fact he would not to join us – work commitments in Toronto would prevent him flying over.

That gig – of which I personally had minimal expectations – turned into a ‘once in a lifetime’, relentless, classic, dynamic, energising experience in an horrendous sweat-box of a room that I shall ever forget.

Nobody would pretend that the Alvins, or The Blasters, are word-beaters to rank alongside the A-listers of the rock music industry, but with their anthems such as Marie Marie, So Long Baby, Goodbye, Dark Night and Border Radio and their chosen (endlessly touring) lives, steeped in American roots music since the late 1950s [I should estimate there was over 200 years of musical experience on stage last night], they can play anything anyhow they like.

They’re living descendants in direct line from the American blues singers of the 1920s onwards, dipped in the country, folk, rock and roll and punk genres.

Later ... with Jools Holland

Later … with Jools Holland

I took only 75 minutes to get home last night and, winding down, switched to the last ten minutes of Later … with Jools Holland on BBC2.

As Holland closed the show he listed the artistes that had been featured last night and – guess what – amongst them had been Dave and Phil Alvin and their band!

(I later learned from the internet that they’d recorded their set for the programme on Tuesday).


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About Michael Stuart

After university, Michael spent twelve years working for MELODY MAKER before going freelance. He claims to keep doing it because it is all he knows. More Posts