“(Big Bill Broonzy‘s) influence on a variety of players went from the uptown musicians to the country blues guys like Big Joe Williams. He was an influence on Muddy Waters, an influence on the folk musicians of the early 1960s and one of the first blues guys to go over to Europe where he was an influence on skiffle bands and guitarists like Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton.”
—Dave Alvin to Phil Gallo, Billboard, February 19, 2014
Moments after Phil Alvin, Dave Alvin, and Dave’s longtime backup band, The Guilty Ones, finished their transcendent 90-minute set at The Troubadour on June 14, I thought to myself, “THAT’S what Springsteen is supposed to sound like.” No mushmouthed caterwauling, no self-indulgent bombast, just poignant, laser-sharp vignettes served on a swinging Hollywood bed of blues, country, R&B, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll. And while there was proselytizing on stage, it was in the service of Broonzy, the subject of their recent tribute album, Common Ground. The beauty of the show, though, was that while Broonzy material was covered, the group also played a handful of Blasters songs, and even plucked a few gems from Dave’s solo catalog.
Thus, the gig (again) reminded me that not only is Dave Alvin one of the best American songwriters of the last 35-40 years, he’s also one of the top 4-5 California songwriters ever. Also, in the discussion of greatest white R&B singer ever, Phil Alvin is certainly on the short list. His keening tenor howl is a straight up motherfucker. There aren’t many singers of ANY ethnicity who could successfully cover James Brown‘s “Please Please Please” without sounding hacky, but Phil nailed it. NAILED IT!
The greatness of the Alvins aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the night’s secret weapon, drummer Lisa Pankratz (pictured above). She was a freakin’ powerhouse, pushing the beat on one song, pulling back the next, with a heavy-ass left hand driving the band like John Henry. She was a force of nature and basically laid waste to 99% of male drummers, especially those Slipknot dicks with 15 piece kits and triple kick drums. Whatever dudes. Lisa was like Buddy Harman meets Earl Palmer meets a Bruce Lee one-inch punch in your solar plexus. This is to take nothing away from her husband and bassist, Brad Fordham, or second lead guitarist/slide guitarist, Chris Miller, both of whom helped the group lock in tight. But, Pankratz was the business.
While this video doesn’t convey the sheer power of the band I saw a couple of weeks ago, it definitely showcases the heavy swing they bring to the table.
Phil Alvin & Dave Alvin – How You Want It Done
Phil Alvin – vocals, acoustic guitar
Dave Alvin – resonator guitar
Brad Fordham – standup bass
Lisa Pankratz – drums
At the Troubadour, Dave actually introduced “How You Want It Done” by saying that Broonzy’s 1932 recording was the very first rockabilly recording. While not textbook rockabilly in that it doesn’t have a doghouse bass accompanying the guitar, the assertion isn’t that outlandish. Judge for yourself.
Big Bill Broonzy – How You Want It Done
Recorded March 29, 1932
Released as B-side of “Bull Cow Blues,” 1933
Dig that sweet guitar lead, which presages not just the rockabillies, but guitarists like Joe Maphis and Merle Travis, and groups like the Maddox Brothers And Rose. Of course, Broonzy’s lead isn’t THAT far removed from Rabon Delmore‘s tenor guitar lead on “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” recorded contemporaneously with “How You Want It Done.” Oh, American music … you beautiful mutt.
Stephen “Spaz” Schnee: Why did you decide to focus on the songs of Big Bill Broonzy as opposed to any of your other influences?
Phil Alvin: Well, Big Bill covered all the bases, as a great singer, great songwriter, and fabulous guitar player. He had long been a favorite of David and mine. It was actually David’s idea to do Big Bill and, again, he has been a favorite of mine since I first heard him when I was like 15 or something. There is a new biography out on Big Bill (I Feel So Good: The Life And Times Of Big Bill Broonzy), which was very well written and hopefully we can draw some attention to it and what a great artist he is.
Dave Alvin: He was a great guitar player. He was a great singer. He was a great songwriter, and the fact that he had 30 years of songs with a variety of interpretations. I love Lightnin’ Hopkins, and our hero, Big Joe Turner, and we could certainly do tribute records to them, but Big Bill wrote a lot a songs and we could interpret them in different ways. It didn’t have to be done in a specific style – they could be done in a Chicago blues style or they could be done in a swing style or they could be done in a ragtime style, you know? It just opened it up to showing off what we could do I guess is the egotistical way of putting it.
–Phil and Dave interviewed in Discussions Magazine, May 22, 2014
Over the course of the last 50 years, the blues have been so thoroughly co-opted that it’s hard for people to see it as a legitimate art form. Do we really need to see another “guitar hero” wank his way through a 15 minute rendition of “Red House?” Does anyone really need to hear “Sweet Home Chicago” or “Baby What You Want Me to Do” for the 9 billionth time? Probably not. BUT, those songs in their original incarnations still have meaning independent of their cultural saturation. You might have to work to strip away the shitass bar band connotations, but it’s there. The comparison I usually make is to film, both cinema and photography. People have been weaned on color for so long, they don’t realize black and white has value, and blues (like country) is a black and white musical genre.
When Dave says Broonzy had 30 years of songs with “a variety of interpretations,” what he’s saying on a macro level is that the blues isn’t just a forum for Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan wannabes. There’s acoustic blues, electric blues, country blues, piano blues, harmonica blues, slide guitar blues, big band blues, small combo jump blues, R&B (what do you think the “B” stands for?), blues shouting, blues ballads, Chicago, Memphis, Texas, and Los Angeles blues, swamp blues, North Mississippi drone blues, white blues, punk blues, and probably 30 dozen permutations in-between. So, where “How You Want It Done” was pre-war, proto-rockabilly acoustic blues, “Tomorrow” is postwar, small combo jump blues of a piece with contemporaries Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner, and clearly pointing the way to Ray Charles and B.B. King.
Big Bill Broonzy & His Big Little Orchestra – Tomorrow
Recorded November 9, 1951
Released as single, 1958
Such a great, swinging sound, highlighted by Broonzy’s smooth baritone, and Sax Mallard’s gritty alto solo (phrased as if he were on tenor). In retrospect, though the song was a time capsule of 1951 R&B, by the time it was released in 1958 it was almost passé, what with jump blues overwhelmed by the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. Regardless, “Tomorrow” is a gem in the Broonzy catalog and a tune well worth resurrecting. Speaking of which …
Phil Alvin – vocals, harmonica
Dave Alvin – lead electric guitar (solo #2)
Gene Taylor – piano (solo #1)
Brad Fordham – bass
Lisa Pankratz – drums
3/5ths of the classic Blasters lineup + the Guilty Ones rhythm section = jump blues perfection. As I get older and reassess my musical inspirations and influences, the more I realize this postwar blues/R&B sound is as much a part of my foundation as classic rock, soul, country, bluegrass, western swing, swing jazz, early rock ‘n’ roll, punk/indie rock, and second wave hip-hop (1982-92). This version of “Tomorrow” sounds more like a T-Bone Walker jam than it does Big Bill’s version, mainly because the Alvins don’t have a horn section. Then again, if you have Gene Taylor and Dave Alvin in tow, why not play to their strengths? Everyday is a good day to hear Taylor drop science on the keys and with Phil crooning over the Fordham/Pankratz pocket, “Tomorrow” is one of Common Ground‘s high points.
Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin discuss Big Bill Broonzy
Interesting that Dave references the Davies brothers in this interview because there’s a Ray Davies lyric that sums up what the brothers Alvin have always been about. In “Village Green Preservation Society,” the title track to their 1968 album, Ray sings:
“Preserving the old ways from being abused
Protecting the new ways for me and for you
What more can we do?”
In the late ’60s, with an emphatic cultural mandate to be different (not necessarily a bad thing) and loud assertions of one’s individuality (ditto, but usually annoying), there was something to be said for Ray’s understated reflection in service of “the old ways.”* To that end, both “VGPS” and “Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains” were metaphors for preservation. The latter song is particularly relevant to this discussion because it was the album’s lone track to pay homage to the blues (Howlin’ Wolf‘s “Smokestack Lightning”). But, instead of adhering to the era’s predilection for extended solos and max volume, The Kinks focus on song and groove. In context, then, it was Davies who was “the last of the good old renegades,” not the self-styled revolutionaries and pseudo-renegades of the ’60s, many of whom were conformists in non-conformist clothing.
Fast-forward 13 years to 1981, when southern California saw a motherlode of seminal punk albums: X – Wild Gift, Black Flag – Damaged, Minutemen – The Punch Line, Gun Club – Fire Of Love, and Adolescents – Adolescents (as well as debut EPs by The Descendents, Bad Religion, and T.S.O.L.). Into this fertile, high-octane maelstrom, The Blasters’ self-titled LP (pictured above) seems as out of place as The Kinks’ effort was in 1968. However, the band was embraced in the punk scene — especially by X, with whom they were totally simpatico — partly because they could match the punks in intensity, and partly because their take on R&B, rockabilly, and vintage rock ‘n’ roll was so clearly stamped with a personal authenticity that only the most tin-eared suburbanite wouldn’t hear the appeal.
On paper, The Kinks and Blasters are separated by generation and genre (mostly), not to mention 5,400 miles. As a matter of fact, The Blasters always struck me as a band that played music as if the British Invasion never happened. Where the Alvins promoted American music almost to exclusion, The Kinks seemed specifically English. Therefore, imagine my surprise when this exchange took place in the May 22, 2014 edition of Discussions Magazine:
Stephen “Spaz” Schnee: You and Dave used to sneak into blues clubs when you were younger. What was it that initially drew you to the blues or americana as opposed to bands like The Beatles and The Kinks?
Phil Alvin: I kind of like The Kinks. (laughs)
Perfect. Of course he does. It’s probably worth noting here that Big Bill Broonzy was an equally profound influence on Ray and Dave Davies. So with that, let us now take the idea of preservation and turn it in on itself. While Broonzy was common ground for Phil and Dave, obviously The Blasters will always be the most common ground. That’s why one of the highlights of the Troubadour set was Phil and Dave using The Guilty Ones as the foundation to revisit Blasters material. Sure, it was a little strange to hear Phil and Dave tackle songs like “Border Radio” and “Trouble Bound” without John Bazz and Bill Bateman in tow, but it worked. Especially with Pankratz behind the kit, there was no way the songs WEREN’T gonna work. Trust me, being in-house that night was a sight (and sound) to behold. I wish there was quality video — or ANY video — from the Troubadour, but the clip below will have to do. It’s actually a pretty damn good representation of the band that I saw and there’s a certain poetry that the gig took place on the 4th of July.
Phil Alvin with Dave Alvin & The Guilty Ones
Fitzgerald’s 33rd Annual American Music Festival, Berwyn, IL
July 4, 2013
I Wish You Would [Billy Boy Arnold] > Band Intros
So Long Baby Goodbye
HOW YOU WANT IT DONE
Read The Vinyl File: The Blasters – American Music (Adios Lounge, August 30, 2013)
Read Daddy Rollin’ Stone (Adios Lounge, July 30, 2013)
Read The Vinyl File: Phil Alvin – Un “Sung Stories” (Adios Lounge, July 8, 2013)
Read This Song Comes From 1982 (Adios Lounge, March 26, 2013)