It’s not unusual for estranged musicians to reconcile and start working together again, even when the musicians are family. Think of the Everly Brothers, who broke up acrimoniously in 1973, then reunited a decade later to make a string of critically acclaimed albums before going their separate ways once more.
Neither is it unprecedented for a musician to drop old animosities when the death of a longtime band mate helps bring big-picture priorities into sharper focus.
But brothers Dave and Phil Alvin, the founding members of long-running Southland roots-rock band the Blasters, may well be the first musicians in history to put those scenarios together.
FOR THE RECORD:
Phil Alvin and the Blasters: A photo caption with a June 8 Arts & Books article about roots-rock musicians Phil and Dave Alvin identified both as former members of the Blasters. Dave Alvin left the band in the 1980s, but Phil Alvin has remained the group’s lead singer throughout its ongoing career. —
Their new album, “Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy,” released Tuesday, isn’t extraordinary simply because it’s their first collaborative album in 30 years or because it’s their first album as brothers instead of as members of the Blasters.
It’s quite possibly unique in the annals of pop music because it is the result of a musician who literally died and came back to life.
“It’s been quite a profound experience,” said Phil Alvin, the Blasters’ full-throated lead singer, while seated recently next to his younger brother in a booth at one of their favorite old haunts, the Chris’ & Pitt’s barbecue joint in their hometown of Downey, a short hop south of downtown Los Angeles.
The elder Alvin brother was on tour in Spain two years ago when he felt ill enough to be taken to a local hospital. While undergoing treatment for an infection from an abscessed tooth that had caused his throat to swell virtually closed, his heart stopped and his vital signs flat-lined.
Phil was technically dead before being resuscitated both times by the attending physician, Dr. Mariella Anaya Sifuentes, whom Alvin subsequently serenaded by singing “Maria Maria,” his Spanish-language rendition of one of the Blasters’ cornerstone songs, “Marie Marie.”
Amid the discussion of exploring the songbook of influential blues musician Broonzy in “Common Ground,” Phil addressed the elephant-in-the-room question: What’s it’s like to be dead?
Lead guitarist and songwriter Dave quickly interjected a little humor, “So, what’s it like there, Phil, on the other side? Is it comfy? They got 7-Elevens?”
“Oh, it is comfy,” Phil said. “It’s nothing.”
“Does everybody get a car?” Dave asks.
“Yes, there is plenty of parking,” Phil said.
That brush with the other side did help bring the brothers together and mend the sometimes rocky relationship between them. “When I first became conscious,” Phil explained. “I knew I was coming out of some ultimate-nothing-peace, and just for an instant it was like … ‘Awww.’ Then I started thinking about people I love and all that, and all the responsibility, and that was all good.”
The Blasters got started in the late 1970s, a time when ‘50s-inspired primal rock and hard-hitting blues were barely visible on the radar screens of most pop music fans. Disco was going strong in chart-topping songs of Donna Summer, the Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor, while ‘70s rock throbbed through the songs of the Eagles, Styx and the Doobie Brothers.
Dave and Phil Alvin were as far from the epicenter of popular music as Downey was culturally distant from Hollywood. Soon, however, they became key players on an early ‘80s underground scene in which roots music flourished with L.A.-based acts such as the Blasters, Los Lobos, Rank and File, Dwight Yoakam and Lone Justice, who generated ripples that reached the mainstream when the Stray Cats took rockabilly-infused hits to the top of the national pop charts.
Through records played for them by cousins, Phil and Dave soon became immersed in the early rock, blues, R&B and folk of Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis.
They could have recorded a tribute album to any one of those early heroes but settled on Broonzy because, as Dave puts it, “Big Bill, he was the entrance drug into prewar blues. That’s the record Phil came home with that was all late-'30s recordings, and that was an eye-opening thing.”
Additionally, Broonzy didn’t play any one style of blues exclusively.
“Big Bill had such a vast quantity of songs in a vast quantity of styles, you can make a pretty varied record, it’s not just one thing,” Dave said. “He just did everything. So on this record, there’s 12 different examples of how to play the blues.”
The Alvins also might have tapped Blasters bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman, but they chose to use current members of Dave’s band, the Guilty Ones, for a couple of reasons.
“We had never made a record that focused just on the 13- and 14-year-old Alvin Brothers,” Dave said. “The kind of record like ‘Gee, if they could make a record, what kind of record would they make?’ So we made it.”
Partly it was triggered by their work together on the long-gestating John Mellencamp-Stephen King musical theater piece “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” in which the Alvins took on the part of the titular siblings.
“We did the song that I wrote, ‘What’s Up With Your Brother’ on my last album, then when I heard the stuff on the ‘Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,’ I know we have distinctly different ways of singing and I didn’t know whether they’d work together,” Dave said.
“Neither of us are harmony singers. Neither of us is Phil Everly, but between ‘What’s Up With Your Brother’ and the ‘Ghost Brothers,’ we sound like brothers, but very different, and we’d never made a record that focused on Phil and Dave.”
The Alvin brothers had not recorded together since the Blasters’ “Hard Line” album in 1985, when Dave left to pursue his solo career. He first joined punk band X as lead guitarist, filling in when founding member Billy Zoom temporarily left, then teamed again with X singers Exene Cervenka and John Doe in their country-folk side project, the Knitters, before issuing a series of solo albums widely lauded for his astute, socially conscious and character-rich songwriting.
Reconnecting with his brother has resurrected the idea that someday there could be another Blasters recording with Dave Alvin on board — something many Blasters watchers long considered about as likely as a man coming back from the dead.
“Maybe,” Dave said. “It makes it more likely than less likely. But the idea of writing 10 songs that all five Blasters can sink their teeth into at this point …" his voice trailing off into uncertainty. “We could certainly do a record of Junior Parker, or Howlin Wolf [songs]. But the answer to those kind of questions is constantly changing.”
And then the notion of something eternal crops up again.
“In some ways, this type of music doesn’t die,” Dave said. “It goes through bleak periods or droughts, but I think there’s always going to be a type of kids like us, who are looking for something else. We may not be in the majority, but there will always be a sizable minority of oddballs that find purpose in old music, find meaning in the older music, and then take it wherever they’re going to take it from there.”