When he first toured the UK with The Blasters, in 1981 or thereabouts, Dave Alvin was a swaggering young yahoo in rockabilly duds with a 50s quiff, attitude to spare and the unblemished good looks of someone still fairly new to what the rest of his life would become, the bulk of it since spent mostly on the road, playing whatever bar, club, juke joint, tavern, theatre, festival, hootenanny or hoe-down that would have him.
He certainly has the appearance nearly 30 years after The Blasters last played the UK of someone who’s done his share of hard travelling. Last Friday at a rare London show at Camden’s Jazz Café he looked beneath his Stetson not unlike the weather-beaten Robert Duvall of Open Range, a veteran saddle-tramp, leathery and laconic, more than a bit like the music he played, which was roughly the equivalent of the kind of roadhouse blues that occupies so much of Dylan’s set lists these days.
He’s just going on when I get there, playing a ghostly version of the traditional “Blackjack David”, title track also of his outstanding 1998 album, and listening to it’s like watching something from the early days of photography slowly developing, already sepia-tinged and reminiscent therefore of faraway times and the people who lived in them, now gone.
This is apt, because there are ghosts aplenty haunting a lot of the songs Alvin plays tonight. Part of his current mission, it sometimes seems, is to honour through his music the memories of the people who helped shape it. These include close friends and former band members, like Amy Farris, formerly the fantastic fiddle player in Dave’s band The Guilty Women, who died in 2009, and Chris Gaffney, a longstanding member of Alvin’s previous touring band, The Guilty Men, who died a year earlier.
Farris is recalled in the achingly beautiful cantina requiem, “Black Rose Of Texas”, whose last verse tonight consists of not much more than Alvin’s hushed voice, a few guitar notes and a host of memories, the song somehow suspended in these last minutes, before the band reintroduce themselves for an elegant coda. Gaffney, meanwhile, is celebrated on the blistering Bo Diddley blues of “Run Conejo Run”, a highlight also of Alvin’s most recent album, last year’s terrific Eleven Eleven.
Elsewhere the spectre of the dying Hank Williams is called up on the old Blasters’ number, “Long White Cadillac”, while Big Joe Turner, an early idol, is affectionately recalled on “Boss Of The Blues” and “Johnny Ace Is Dead”, another song from Eleven Eleven, brilliantly tells the story of the cocky young R&B singer who shot himself in the head during an ill-advised game of Russian Roulette, backstage at Houston’s Civic Auditorium in 1954.
The pounding “Ashgrove”, meanwhile, is a valedictory requiem for a whole host of legendary bluesmen who played the LA ballroom of that name, and is ablaze with incendiary guitar. The long gone Blasters are themselves brought briefly back to life on a roaring “Marie Marie”, and the extended jam at the end of “Fourth Of July”, when Alvin leads his hot little band into an instrumental version of “So Long Baby, Goodbye”, for almost as long as they lasted a blazing climax to Blasters’ shows, Alvin here taking the solos that used to be played back then by the late great New Orleans sax player Lee Allen.
At a stroke, as they say, he brings back more memories than a room this size can hold, of nights, more than you can count, that you thought would never end when the music, every time, was this good always.
Harlan County Line
Boss Of the Blues
The Black Rose Of Texas
Long White Cadillac
King Of California
Run Conejo Run
Johnny Ace Is Dead
Fourth Of July
Dave Alvin pic: Marilyn Kingwill