One of the highlights of Dave Alvin’s last solo album, 2011’s Eleven Eleven, was a track called “What’s Up With Your Brother?”, a droll blues about Dave’s famously fractious relationship with his brother, Phil, that ended hilariously with them having the kind of argument that put paid to The Blasters, the band they were in together before fraternal tensions drove them into a ditch. They split in 1985, after just five albums. While Dave became dedicated to life as a hard travelling road dog, Phil completed a master’s degree in mathematics and artificial intelligence.
One of the highlights of Dave Alvin’s last solo album, 2011’s Eleven Eleven, was a track called “What’s Up With Your Brother?”, a droll blues about Dave’s famously fractious relationship with his brother, Phil, that ended hilariously with them having the kind of argument that put paid to The Blasters, the band they were in together before fraternal tensions drove them into a ditch. They split in 1985, after just five albums. While Dave became dedicated to life as a hard travelling road dog, Phil completed a master’s degree in mathematics and artificial intelligence. His own musical career has in the circumstances been restricted over the last 30 years to a couple of fine solo albums and a brief 2003 reunion tour with The Blasters that produced the Trouble Bound live album.
The session for “What’s Up With Your Brother?” was the first time they’d been in the studio together since 1985, an occasion made even more memorable for Blasters fans by the additional presence of the band’s great piano player, Gene Taylor. Encouraged by Dave’s label to turn an EP project they had been discussing into a full album, their mutual regard for the music of Big Bill Broonzy provided them with an opportunity to work together without undue conflict. The results are spectacular.
Broonzy‘s a towering figure in blues history, linking the acoustic rural blues of the Mississippi Delta and the electric blues forged in the urban crucible of Chicago’s South Side, where he was an early influence on the young Muddy Waters and other wild and rising stars of that legendary scene. He was also one of the first great American bluesmen to bring his music across the Atlantic, first touring Europe in 1951. He was especially revered in the UK, where his smitten fans included a generation of young musicians in thrall to the blues who would soon be forming bands themselves, including Keith Richards, Ray Davies, Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend. “Back before it all caught fire,” Townshend later wrote, “we heard Big Bill and we knew that music could tell the truth as well as entertain.”
Broonzy was one of the most prolific blues songwriters of his era, with more than 300 published titles that spanned acoustic Delta blues, the plugged-in Chicago version and also songs of social protest, like “Just A Dream”, that daringly for its time put Bill in the White House, having a conversation with the president. It’s the kind of thing you might expect to find on a recent Ry Cooder album, and is revived here by the Alvins in a hard-driving version.
Common Ground on the whole gives a fabulous account of Bill’s versatile songbook, whose warmth, wit, generosity of spirit and chin-up good humour in the face of what must have been a lot of awfulness is brilliantly delivered here on an exuberant opening versions of two of Broonzy’s signature songs, “All By Myself” and “I Feel So Good”. The former is a boisterous tumble of acoustic guitars and raw harmonies, like something you might have heard on a plantation porch, bottles of moonshine being passed around, the song’s self-mockery and droll narrative bringing laughter to lives that needed it. “I Feel So Good” is even more raucous, driven by Dave’s stinging lead guitar and Gene Taylor’s barrel-house piano and topped off by Phil’s good-hearted holler, still strong and handsome even after a near-fatal health scare in 2012. There can’t be many professors of mathematical semantics who have sounded this hip.
He brings a bracing gusto to unabashedly bawdy Broonzy songs like “How You Want It Done?” – kin to Muddy Waters’ fiercely carnal “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” – and the even more lubricious “Trucking Little Woman”, whose rockabilly twang and show-stopping guitar solos recall similarly steamy Blasters cuts like “Hollywood Bed”. The version, meanwhile, of another Broonzy standard, “Key To The Highway”, made famous in several version by Eric Clapton, is altogether more stately, the prominence given to Phil’s wailing harmonica part maybe a nod to the version of the song recorded as a tribute just after Big Bill’s death in 1958 by Little Walter and a gathering of Chicago blues nobility, including Muddy, Willie Dixon and Otis Spann. Best of all though is probably “Southern Flood Blues”, originally recorded as a country blues in 1937, something of a lamentation, but now recast as a hugely ominous rocker on the apocalyptic scale of Dylan’s “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, which is suitably drenched by torrential guitar, thunderous drums and spine-tingling harmonica.
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