"County Fair 2000"
Ending a recording drought that dates to 1986, one of the big, brash voices of contemporary roots music emerges with a lighthearted gambol of an album, strolling with many a good musical companion at the easygoing gait of someone who is indeed taking in the relaxed pleasures of a county fair. Whatever the title says, the exhibits on Alvin's midway don't point toward a new millennium, but back to many an engaging blues-based form from the century that's running out.
Alvin, who teaches college math courses when he isn't playing solo shows or fronting the Blasters, has no careerist calculations in mind with this belated follow-up to his first solo record, "Un 'Sung Stories.' " Acoustic-blues rags--including some new originals cut in a mold that goes back to the '30s and beyond--make up a good chunk of "County Fair 2000."
We also get detours into comedic, vaudevillian tunes in the old Chitlin' Circuit tradition: original songs such as "Mr. Satellite Man" and "Wreck Your V-8 Ford," along with the vintage "What's the Reason I'm Not Pleasin' You," find Alvin playing off a cast of comically gifted guests. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Faultline Syncopators provide traditional jazz backup for the most antique-sounding stuff; Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers pops in to give Alvin a tap-dancing lesson on "Low Down Rhythm." The current edition of the Blasters--with James Intveld on lead guitar, John Bazz on bass and drummer Jerry Angel--provides backup on several songs, showing versatility with the country-rockabilly twang of "County Fair" and the sashaying R&B; of "Blue Line."
Known for his high-voltage, larger-than-life delivery, Alvin shows a different dimension by playing it low-key throughout this album. Yet he retains an innate theatricality that lets him bring the characters in his songs to life. Among the gentle highlights are "Starlight," with its yearning musings about the hereafter, and "Keep in Touch," a mellow but briskly coursing tune that wouldn't sound out of place next to some of the Traveling Wilburys' material.
Singing old songs and new originals in old-time styles, Alvin makes a pretty strong argument that good-time music with roots in the first half of the 20th Century probably will keep its appeal in the 21st.
The Blasters and the Rhythm Lords play Saturday, March 25, at 8 p.m. at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. $13.50. (714) 957-0600.