The Dave Alvin XI
‘I used to feel the same about songwriters, they came from Mars, I didn’t know that Bob Dylan was just this guy who came from Hibbing, Minnesota’
By Charlie Mcbride
AMERICAN ROOTS rock maestro Dave Alvin rolls into town next week with his band The Guilty Ones for what’s sure to be a storming gig at Kelly’s Bar, which is part of the Galway Arts Festival’s music lineup.
Still justly feted for his pivotal role in classic 1980’s LA group The Blasters, Alvin has since gone on to produce a string of critically acclaimed solo albums as well as having stints in diverse groups like The Knitters and X.
The title of his current album, Eleven Eleven, alludes to the fact that this is Alvin’s 11th solo release and contains 11 songs. He could have probably added a few more elevens as well; the album was released in November 2011, while Alvin’s birthday falls on November 11, all of which must surely add up to some powerful numerological good omens.
It is certainly a mighty fine album with Alvin on top form in his twin roles of songwriter and guitarist.
Mortality is a recurrent theme on the album with moving eulogies to two of Alvin’s former bandmates who died in recent years; ‘Connejo’ warmly recalls his close friend Chris Gaffney who died of liver cancer in 2008 while the tender, regretful ‘Black Rose of Texas’ evokes fiddler Amy Farris, who sadly took her own life in 2009.
Another stand-out track, ‘Johnny Ace is Dead’, vividly re-creates the drama surrounding the death of fifties R’n’B star Johnny Ace who shot himself while fooling around with his revolver.
“You get to a certain age and I won’t say it gets difficult to write love songs but it’s difficult to write innocent love songs,” Alvin (who is 56) observes, while speaking from his California home. “As a songwriter you tend to work around and try to tell certain stories that are maybe more…sombre.”
‘Gary, Indiana 1959’ is also a kind of eulogy in which an elderly steelworker wistfully recalls a time when American trade unions could stand up to the bosses.
“My dad was an organiser for the steelworkers’ union and there’s a little bit of him there,” Alvin reveals. “But it’s also about that time and place – Gary, Indiana 1959 - and it’s a song about an old man and over the course of his lifetime everything’s changed into a world he doesn’t recognise or understand, and he’s not sure how it happened. I’m still of the opinion that trade unionism is a good thing, so the song is both a eulogy and a call to action.”
In his sleevenotes to Eleven Eleven, Alvin reveals the songs “were written looking out the window of a Ford van on interstate highways, on jets at 30,000 feet, on old trains crossing deserts and mountains.”
It is the only one of his albums to have come together in this way.
“I normally set aside a couple of months to write when I am at home,” he tells me. “I have my room that I write in and that’s where I am comfortable, away from the distractions of being on the road.
“But for whatever reason with Eleven Eleven, songs just started coming out of me while I was on the road. I’d go home and set the song right and I’d call the musicians and say ‘What are you doing Tuesday? Wanna go into the studio?’ and we’d go in, record the track then we’d go back on tour and I’d write another song and go back into the studio again a few weeks later.
“It was quite a nice way of making a record, I’d never really done that before, all the way back to The Blasters it was always tour, stop, write, record, but this time the songs just started pouring out of me on the road which had never happened before; I think previously I had only written one song on the road ever.”
Mention of The Blasters calls to mind another stand-out track from the album, the rollicking ‘What’s Up With Your Brother?’ in which Dave sings for the first time on record with his older sibling Phil, the duo trading verses which humorously relate that no matter what either of them do individually ‘all anyone ever asks is/what’s up with your brother?’
I ask Alvin at what point did he realise The Blasters had something special going.
“We knew the first time Phil and I played guitars together at our the first gig, which was a friend’s wedding” he replies. “While we had the same influences, our ways of playing guitar were different but when we played together it sounded kinda cool! And we were going ‘Hey, maybe we should form a band!’
“We did not grow up playing music together, I was always the little brother while Phil always had a band going with great musicians and I was the crappy little brother, but then when we did play music together it was ‘Hey, there’s something special going on here’.
“We were all working day jobs at the time, this was back in ’79, so we thought ‘let’s see if we can get some gigs’ and within about two years we were doing OK, and it shocked us as much as it shocked anyone else!”
As well as his considerable musical output, Alvin has published two collections of poetry.
“I think they’re the same thing,” he observes comparing his songwriting and poems. “Recently I went to the wake of a poet I knew and a guy there asked me ‘You still write poems don’t you?’ and I said ‘Yeah, but you can dance to them!’
“I don’t think every song qualifies as poetry; I think the lyrics of someone like Bob Dylan would qualify as poetry or some songs by Robert Johnson or Hank Williams. The poems I write are more like prose poems, they’re almost like newspaper stories.”
Alongside his many blues and roots heroes, Alvin readily acknowledges that a key influence on his career was his old literature professor, Gerald Locklin.
“Locklin taught me you can write poetry about the mundane world that we live in, that I could write a poem about going to the corner to buy hamburgers and tacos,” Alvin recalls. “For me it had been like poems came from Mars, they didn’t come from where I came from, but Locklin taught me poetry comes from anywhere.
“I used to feel the same about songwriters, they came from Mars, I didn’t know that Bob Dylan was just this guy who came from Hibbing, Minnesota, I just associated him with Greenwich Village. Locklin also taught me about economy of language and that kind of stuff. I owe a lot to him.”
I ask whether Alvin has any other projects in the pipeline but he explains how planning has never been a big part of his modus operandi.
“I know a lot of people that have plans,” he says. “I was friends with Dwight Yoakam before he became famous or even had a record deal and even back then, when he was playing in clubs to 30 or 40 people, Dwight already knew he was going to be a big star and – this is really true! - he knew what songs were going to be on his second and third albums, before he’d even made his first album!
“I’m the total opposite! To me it’s all about being organic. The phone could ring and that might give me an idea, it could be a bagpipe player ‘Dave have you ever thought of making a record with bagpipes?’ ‘No, let’s go make one!’ That’s kinda how I operate,” he concludes with a hearty laugh.
Dave Alvin and The Guilty Ones are in Kelly’s Bar on Friday July 20 at 8pm. Tickets are €20 and are available through www.galwayartsfestival.com and the festival box office.