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Blaster from the past

Special to the Tribune

Not long ago, Dave Alvin was browsing in a store and came across a new history book called "American Roots Music." He flipped past Muddy Waters and Elvis and, under the standard "where's the music going?" section, the book jumped from the Grateful Dead in the '60s to Lucinda Williams in the '90s.

"And that's when I got really [angry]," recalls the singer-songwriter who led the Blasters, a fiery Los Angeles rockabilly band, before going solo in the late '80s. "Like, 'Wait a minute, there's 20-some years here.' Nothing against Lucinda Williams or Gillian Welch, but there's no mention of Fabulous Thunderbirds or the Blasters, who kept the music alive. This music had been untrendy and uncool. When people were trading in their rockabilly or R&B records, we made it cool to go back and buy 'em."

"But," he adds, "I've been really lucky. My last day job [as a fry cook] was 22 years ago. I have a nice house. Things are OK. I got a car that works. On one hand, to me, I'm doing fine."

Although Alvin performs on his own with singer-songwriters Chris Smither, Peter Case and their "Avalon Blues" tour, the Blasters are suddenly relevant again. Alvin consulted on a recent two-disc anthology, "Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings," and agreed to patch things up with his brother, Phil, for a brief band reunion tour in the spring.

"The hardest thing, I think, was convincing my brother to do it. After much hair-pulling, we did it," says Alvin, whose feud with Phil constituted the band's central tension—and led to its ultimate demise. "We had an argument on stage in San Francisco—people got their money's worth that night. But then we continued playing and it was a great gig. We're talking about maybe doing some more."

In the early '80s, when punk in Los Angeles meant everything from X to Wall of Voodoo, the Blasters strutted onto the scene with strange rockabilly haircuts and hopped-up country-and-blues songs like Alvin's "American Music," "So Long Baby Goodbye" and "Marie Marie." But they never sold any records. So Alvin left the band and began releasing the sort of rootsy rock albums you might expect from Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp—only with more sincere historical references, from his tragic Bill Haley fantasy-song "Haley's Comet" to a Grammy-winning 2001 album of folk standards, "Public Domain." Alvin's latest CD, the live "Out in California," documents his fiery nightclub shows with the Guilty Men.

Oh, and when he's lucky, Alvin gets to play guitar behind "Elvis Presley." A little-known detail about the 1992 Nicolas Cage-Sarah Jessica Parker spoof "Honeymoon In Vegas" is Alvin's brief, uncredited appearance as a white-tuxedo guitarist behind the movie's roster of Elvis imitators.

"We spent three days in the studio and four hours a day backing up Elvis imitators and they used about 10 seconds of it," he recalls. "Nah, Hollywood's not wasteful!"

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