Phil and Dave Alvin uncover more common ground on ‘Lost Time’
When Phil and Dave Alvin, founding members of the Blasters, the L.A. roots-rock band Phil has continued to front since Dave left in 1986, reunited last year on album for the first time in nearly 30 years, it seemed there was little that could top the new sense of family harmony after so many years apart. The record, “Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy,” drew critical accolades and earned them a blues album Grammy Award nomination.
Though fences had been mended, the brothers faced another conundrum: How do you follow the success of that reunion project?
The answer is their new collaborative album, “Lost Time,” due Sept. 18. It focuses on several inspirational artists, starting with blues-R&B singer Big Joe Turner, along with Godfather of Soul James Brown, Lead Belly, Willie Dixon, Leroy Carr, gospel composer Thomas Dorsey and several others.
“I’ve realized I just really like playing music with this guy,” Dave, 59, said of his brother, who’s 21/2 years older, during an interview in Downey, where they grew up and became fans of vintage blues, R&B, folk, country and gospel music early on thanks to their musically passionate parents as well as some neighbors and relatives.
“The thing I’m proudest of on this album is getting Phil’s voice down on these songs,” said Dave, who produced the album with Craig Parker Adams. “He’s one of those rare singers that has something truly special — like Joe Turner did.
“I can imitate it — for about 25 seconds,” he added with a laugh, “and then it starts to hurt. It rattles my teeth inside my head.”
The power of Phil’s vocals is the focal point of their versions of Turner’s elegantly bawdy “Cherry Red Blues,” the hard-rocking “Feeling Happy” and the sinister, fate-tempting “Wee Baby Blues.” Most of the songs are built around those vocals, yet they leave Dave plenty of room to stretch out with his incendiary guitar solos.
Most of the members of Dave’s touring band, the Guilty Ones, are on the album; they’ll do the same on the Alvins’ forthcoming tour, which stops at the Troubadour in West Hollywood on Nov. 14 and at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre on Nov. 21.
Phil said he was 15 or 16 when he first met Turner, having much earlier become an ardent fan of the Kansas City, Mo.-born musician probably best known for his 1954 R&B hit “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” which Bill Haley and His Comets brought to a considerably wider audience several months after Turner’s version caught on.
Turner was living in L.A.'s Adams district at that time in the 1960s, plying the clubs along Central Avenue and wherever else around town he could get work. Phil’s band at the time, Delta Pacific, subsequently scored gigs opening for Turner and later backed him, giving the young white boys from Downey the equivalent of master classes in the blues and R&B from one of the genre’s architects.
Elsewhere on “Lost Time,” Phil Alvin demonstrates himself to be one of the few singers alive who can deliver a credible version of Brown’s desperate romantic plea “Please Please Please,” bring bona fide sense of menace to Oscar Brown Jr.'s foreboding “Mister Kicks” as well as ignite ecclesiastical fire during the album’s two gospel songs, “World’s in a Bad Condition” and Dorsey’s album-closing “If You See My Savior.”
Phil Alvin can speak with some degree of authority on the subject of life’s other side, as he technically died on an operating table — twice — during surgery while on tour in Spain, before being revived by the attending medical team.
In the rare times he addresses that episode, he has described it as profound — during which he said he experienced a sense of “ultimate-nothing-peace.” To hear them talk about it, Phil’s brush with death was more harrowing for Dave than it was for him.
But Phil’s recovery was the sea change they needed to get beyond personal differences and come together over the thing that had bonded them so strongly since childhood: music.
For “Common Ground,” they chose Broonzy, because the blues songwriter, singer and guitarist had such a varied catalog that they could do a full album without feeling they were in danger of becoming repetitious.
Although it seems like a natural organizing principle, “It’s not actually a no-brainer,” Phil says. “In fact, it’s kind of risky.”
But Dave and Phil admitted they chose to take the risk because at this point in their careers, it made no sense to proceed on anything other than instinct. That way, they knew at least they would likely be happy with the results.
On that front, “Lost Time” constitutes mission accomplished. Both Alvins expressed pride in the finished product, to the extent that they even talked about a possible third installment.
Noting that he and his brother hadn’t collaborated on recording original songs by Dave, one of the most acclaimed singers and songwriters in the world of Americana music, since the early 1980s heyday of the Blasters, Phil suggested that might just point the direction for a third album from the Alvin brothers.
“I guess the only thing left to do,” Phil said, looking to his left at Dave, “is you.”
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