Rhythm & Blues Brothers

One snag brought on by the LP boom is that vinyl pressing plants, of which there are too few, are backed up. While that’s good news for someone like RTI, it’s less thrilling to consumers who typically wait for months after the CD/MP3 release of a new album to hear the vinyl. So it was with great pleasure that I slapped on my recently arrived LP copy of Dave and Phil Alvin’s Lost Time, which was released on September 18. Not surprisingly, given the brothers’ roots rock leanings, the sound here also has a healthy respect for the past. Dave Alvin’s guitar is drenched in reverb throughout, the mix is balanced (which is a minor miracle given lead singer Phil Alvin’s forceful voice and presence) and all the instruments—even the piano!—have great presence in the mix.

Thirty-five years ago, The Blasters were perhaps the only band to ever close to breaking into the mainstream playing roots rock. Coming out of Southern California at the same time as Los Lobos, X and punk rock bands such as The Screamers and Black Flag, the original quartet, supplemented in the beginning by great New Orleans legend Lee Allen on tenor sax, made a great self-titled sophomore record which was released on the coolest L.A. label of the moment, the long departed/much lamented indie, Slash Record. It also had supremely memorable cover art: a drawing of the band’s inimitable lead singer Phil Alvin’s impassioned, sweaty, squinty face.

Phil and his brother Dave, the band’s guitarist, were from Downey, California and grew up as students and huge admirers of old blues and R&B records. By the time of The Blasters they’d learned from the punk crowd about mixing volume, speed and attitude with their rockabilly leanings, a style that was just then having one of its periodic revivals. When The Blasters received national distribution, the band almost broke out of being another bar band, albeit a supremely talented one, playing roots and rockabilly music. However, tunes like "Marie, Marie," "Hollywood Bed" "Border Radio" and "American Music," are still timeless classics.

After two more studio albums that didn’t sell outside the roots rock community, Non-Fiction (1983) and Hard Line (1985), the band splintered, re-appearing over the years, mostly in versions led by Phil Alvin and often containing the band’s original rhythm section of bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman. After the original Blasters, younger brother Dave, who wrote all the songs, replaced Billy Zoom in X for a minute, and later spent time playing with the Knitters, Flesh Eaters, Gun Club and the Pleasure Barons. Both brothers have also had solo careers, though Dave’s was by far the most successful. His 1987 solo debut, Romeo’s Escape, which contains his best known song "Fourth of July," remains a highlight.

As is often the case—think the Kinks and Oasis to name two obvious examples—the two brothers have had their share of serious squabbles over the years. But as is also common, illness, in this case Phil almost dying in 2012 while on tour in Spain of respiratory arrest brought on it seems by an abscessed tooth, has brought them back together.

The pair have now recorded a pair of albums filled with covers of tunes by all their heroes. After last year’s Common Ground which focused on the music of pioneering blues guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, the brothers Alvin have recorded a more varied set here with Lost Time. The title, which no doubt refers to the many years they spent in brotherly combat, could carry the prefix “making up for…” The set here contains tunes by Willie Dixon, James Brown and particularly Big Joe Turner. A raucous cover of the charged, “World’s in a Bad Condition,” a number first recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet in the 1930’s, is infectious. The lascivious “Papa’s On The Housetop,” is fun. And a radically re-arranged version of John Lomax’s “In New Orleans (Rising Sun Blues)” is this record’s surprise. It’s clear throughout from the easy grooves and the heartfelt singing from both Alvins that these two are feelin’ and believin’ in every tune here.

dalethorn's picture

I never would've guessed - white guys, old guys, reunion, blues - just didn't seem like a viable mix. But the performance is stirring, the music authentic - I enjoyed it.