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The Sun Sets On The Blasters

The release of The Blasters' Going Home (Shout Factory), a live CD and companion DVD recorded late last year, marks the end of the beloved SoCal roots-rockers' most recent chapter. "The reunion shows were great," guitarist/songwriter Dave Alvin said. "But by the end, it was starting to get a little bit like the old times. It was like, 'You know, this might be enough.'"

The Blasters originally came together at the end of the '70s in the heart of Orange County, Calif., and along with the outsider punk bands of the L.A. area (Black Flag, X, The Germs) served as a much-needed antidote to the slick pop music of the early '80. The band was the brainchild of singer/guitarist Phil Alvin, whose love of raw blues, rockabilly, and R&B verged on the religious. He recruited Bill Bateman on drums, John Bazz on bass, and, as a last resort, his younger brother Dave on lead guitar. "All the other guitar players that were my brother's age had all left town or were dead or in jail," the guitarist recalled during a recent phone interview. "So it wound up being me. In the beginning, I was just hanging on to being in the band because they couldn't find anyone else! That was really it. At the time, I was studying poetry and creative writing and working as a fry cook."

The band's sound was summed up succinctly in "American Music," the title track of their 1980 debut longplayer (originally a few thousand vinyl albums were pressed up on the small Rollin' Rock label; Hightone Records re-released the album on CD with extra tracks in 1997): "We got the Louisiana boogie and the Delta blues/ We got country swing and rockabilly, too/ We got jazz, country-Western, and Chicago blues/It's the greatest music that you ever knew."

Dave Alvin soon became the band's primary songwriter. "When it became obvious that we were going to have to have original songs in order to get a record deal, I was the guy that started writing," he said. "And over the period of a year or two years, my view kind of changed. I went from doing the songs note for note to thinking 'How can I write songs that are maybe as good as some of the old ones, and yet are about things that are somewhat relatable to contemporary times?'"

The Punk Connection

The group was signed by L.A.'s punk-rock Slash label (also home to X), which helped position them as part of the new underground rock scene rather than as rockabilly throwbacks. The Blasters received many rave reviews. Its highlights included "Marie Marie," a new version of "American Music," and "Border Radio," songs that became cornerstones of the group's repertoire and earned Dave Alvin acclaim as a fresh songwriting talent.

The band added pianist Gene Taylor, baritone saxophonist Steve Berlin, and Lee Allen on tenor sax, and proceeded to record four studio albums, all the while building up a loyal fan base on the strength of their blazing live show. Dave Alvin left the band in 1987 to pursue a solo career and production jobs, while Phil Alvin continued playing live under The Blasters' name with other guitarists and players. In 2002, Rhino Records released Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings, which revived interest in the original band. As a result, Dave Alvin rejoined for a series of shows in the U.S. and Europe.

"It was kind of ecstatic just about everywhere we went," Dave Alvin said of the reception the reunited Blasters received. "It was a real revelation to me. I knew there were fans of the band and all that. But I didn't realize how — I'll use the word — 'loved' the band is, or was, or whatever. You know, certain people just really connected with the band. Maybe it was because none of us were handsome and we weren't like big rock stars... We always seemed like we were somehow related to everybody. I think it meant a lot to a lot of people to see the five guys up there together again. But I didn't think it would be that way."

The band's mastery over classic American musical forms remained firmly in place. Indeed, Dave Alvin thinks that the 21st-century Blasters are even better than they were in their early-'80 heyday. "I do think the last few records — the CD/DVD, and Trouble Bound, [a live album whose songs were drawn from the first series of 2002 reunion shows] — are the best CDs we've ever done." The key ingredient, he reveals, was having a "'we don't care' kind of attitude. [The reunion shows] weren't like a make-or-break thing with our career. And because of that we just played like we play."

Guest Stars

Going Home is further distinguished by the presence of several guest stars, including the vocal groups The Calvanes and The Medallions, rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess, and Chicago bluesman Billy Boy Arnold. "The thing that connected all of the guest musicians was that in the early days, we used to do songs by all these guys," Dave Alvin said. "These are people who had a direct influence on the way The Blasters sound."

The guitarist is particularly proud of how these collaborations shine a light on the common blues roots of such diverse musical talents. "On the live CD, there's a Big Joe Turner medley. So you have four acts playing: you've got The Blasters from California, Sonny Burgess from Arkansas, Billy Boy from Chicago, and the R&B vocal quartet from California as well. And all of those acts were influenced by Big Joe Turner. They all sound different, but they all work within the blues form, and they were influenced by that one guy. So that was my idea with the guests — to show where the connection is."

Alvin has never been shy in talking about the band's numerous influences. Indeed, The Blasters have been responsible for turning on countless fans to dozens of long-forgotten acts, either through musical tributes or cover versions. "We got together for three reasons: to play music at a time when there might be an opportunity to play the way we did, to quit our day jobs, and most importantly, to say 'Hey, you ever hear of this guy?' It was sort of a way to take your old beat-up 45s and play them for people. And then it branched out into other things."

Dave Alvin sees Going Home as his farewell to The Blasters, at least for the time being. "You never want to say never," he said regarding the possibility of future Blasters activity. "Especially because all five guys, no matter what I say or my brother says, we're all related. We've all known each other since we were kids, and because of that you can't say 'Go to hell! I'll never talk to you again!' I mean, we actually say that all the time, but we don't mean it," he said with a laugh. "But I think definitely it's sort of a goodbye for the time being. I think there's no intention of going into a recording studio and doing anything like that. But we'll probably do some gigs sometime in the next 20 years." Then he laughed again.

In the meantime, Dave Alvin is keeping busy. "I have a new solo record called Ashgrove coming out on June 15th," he reported. "Greg Leisz [Lucinda Williams, Beck, Wilco] is producing, and it's basically just me and Greg playing guitars, and a bass player and a drummer. It turned out really well, it's all new, original songs."

The album will be released on the fledgling North Carolina indie Yep Roc Records, an alliance Dave Alvin is excited about. "For years, I've been signing my records over to record labels, but since I paid for this record myself, I'm going to license the music from now on. They made me an amazing offer. Other labels made great offers, but this one was by far the best. They're very young and very proactive, and they're figuring out how the record industry is going to survive in the future." — Tyler Wilcox [Monday, May 17, 2004]

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