Recording of October 2002: Out in California

DAVE ALVIN & THE GUILTY MEN: Out in California
Hightone HCD8144 (CD). 2002. Dave Alvin, prod.; Mark Linnett, prod., eng. AAD? TT: 76:00
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

For some singer-songwriters, the match of voice, style, and original material is instantaneous. The songs of Bruce Springsteen, for instance, always sound best and feel most genuine when he sings them. It's fair to say that, even if you don't like The Boss or his voice, you have to admit that they fit his material and vice versa.

In the case of Dave Alvin, the alchemy between the singer and his songs has taken longer. It used to be that Marshall Crenshaw was the man you wanted to hear sing Alvin's amusing tale of trailer-park love gone awry, "Wanda and Duane." But Out in California confirms that Alvin is now the man for the job. The melding of songs, style, and voice is what makes this new live album so convincing.

Since the release of his solo debut album, Romeo's Escape, in 1985, Dave Alvin has built one of the proudest and most cruelly underappreciated careers in music today. Once just a pompadoured rockabilly dude with a penchant for tight-neck scarves, he's become a full-blown guitar hero and the west coast's answer to well-played, hard-shelled, soft-centered, heartland rock. Once part of The Blasters, the late-'80s roots-rock band he fronted with his brother, Phil, Alvin has proved a triple threat: a good to great songwriter, a singer who makes fine use of what he's got, and a bad-assed guitarslinger extraordinaire.

It's his songwriting that has helped spread Alvin's influence the furthest. Romeo's Escape (released in the UK by Demon Records as Every Night About This Time) was a collection of great tunes that other singers have successfully mined ever since. "Long White Cadillac" became a hit for Dwight Yoakam, and the ballad "Every Night About This Time" was reworked by Joe Ely. "Fourth of July," Alvin's best-known tune, became associated with X thanks to its inclusion on their 1987 album, See How We Are, at a time when Alvin briefly replaced Billy Zoom as that seminal L.A. band's guitarist.

Despite his gifts, and like The Blasters before, Alvin has had a hard time breaking through to a larger audience. After years of fans and the music business telling him that a live album might be the way to break out, Alvin cut Interstate City in Austin in 1996. But for some reason, that album lacked his hits, as well as the sparks that make his live shows so honest and rockin'.

Those errors were not made on Out in California. A live record as Stereophile's "Recording of the Month"? It's true—most live albums have an audio image akin to hearing a band through the open end of an institutional-size ketchup can. Happily, these sessions, recorded—where else but out in California?—at the Blue Café in Long Beach, the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, and the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, have a warm, rich, you-were-there quality that made even the editor of this magazine blink and reach for the liner notes.

John Atkinson also feels strongly that this album, as he succinctly put it, "Rocks!" That it does. Part of why comes via Alvin's longtime band, The Guilty Men. Greg Leisz (dobro, guitar) and John "Juke" Logan (harmonica) both played on Romeo's Escape, and Drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks has been with Alvin since the early '90s. Second guitarist Rick Shea is a monster in his own right. Bassist Gregory Boaz, keyboardist Joe Terry, fiddler Brantley Kearns, and accordionist-singer Chris Gaffney are all dependable, accomplished veterans. When this band locks into a groove, it doesn't let go. Another factor in the album's joi de vivre is co-producer and engineer Mark Linnett, who filled the same two spots on Romeo's Escape.

The album opens with the title track (Alvin hails from Downey, California), co-written with the great Tom Russell, then runs through accomplished electric versions of most of the highlights of the Alvin songbook. "Haley's Comet," his tribute to the anguished final days of early rock'n'roll hero Bill Haley, has the requisite kick. There's also a heartfelt version of "Blue Boulevard," written for Alvin's aunt, who, when Dave and Phil were kids, allowed the boys to sit in the backseat while she and her teenaged friends cruised the boulevards of L.A.'s East Valley. Also bullseyed is "Abilene," not George Hamilton IV's country hit but an Alvin original that should have been a hit. Ditto the rocker "American Music," perhaps the best song Alvin wrote for The Blasters.

And so it goes. Without exception, Alvin nails every big gun in his songbag—including "Fourth of July," in a never-better version that adds an organ solo and climaxes in a sweeping, guitar-driven raveup leading into the last verse. He also doesn't forget to give a nod or two to his musical roots. A two-song detour into old-school blues/R&B, "Little Honey"/"Who Do You Love," works well, as does the closer, an authoritative yet fun version of Little Walter's blues chestnut, "Everything's Gonna Be Alright."

While he's recorded some of this material several times before, it's never sounded better or felt more real. Dave Alvin and his material have become one.—Robert Baird

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