The Blasters’ frontman Phil Alvin takes to the stage New Year’s Eve after a scary 2012
When Phil Alvin takes the stage for a New Year’s Eve solo set at Joe’s Great American Bar & Grill in Burbank, he won’t just be welcoming in 2013. He’ll be closing the book on a year he’d rather forget.
“Starting in November 2011, 2012 has been the strangest year of my life, by far,” says the Blasters’ frontman. “I will be happy — along with the Mayans — to say goodbye to 2012.”
On the positive front, Alvin and the Blasters released “Fun on Saturday Night” in July, their first album in four years on what he calls the “small but fair” indie label Rip City Records. But while touring Spain in June in advance of the album’s release, tragedy struck. Alvin took ill after the band finished their set one night due to an infection from an abscessed tooth. His throat swelled shut and he was rushed to a hospital where an emergency tracheotomy was performed on him. He flat-lined twice and was brought back to life two times thanks to an intern performing CPR.
Although he says he’s completely recovered from that medical scare with his voice intact, that experience has left the veteran singer “less verbose and more introspective.” He’s more humble and gracious than ever. He wants everyone to know that he’s merely opening the New Year’s Eve gig at Joe’s and the night’s headliner, the Vancouver-based Petunia and the Vipers, are “a great band.”
At Joe’s, Alvin will accompany himself on acoustic guitar, playing some of the “blues, jazz and pop songs” featured on his two solo albums — 1994’s “Country Fair 2000” and 1986’s “Un ‘Sung’ Stories” — as well as some Blasters’ favorites. Then on Jan. 26 at the Observatory in Santa Ana, Alvin’s songwriter/guitarist brother Dave will rejoin the Blasters at a benefit for Alvin’s medical expenses.
Also on the bill is the Knitters, the all-star folk combo featuring Dave Alvin and X’s D.J. Bonebrake, John Doe and Exene Cervenka. (She’s also featured on “Fun on Saturday Night,” singing a duet with Phil on “Jackson,” the Jerry Leiber-penned tune that was famously recorded by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood and later Johnny Cash and June Carter.) Big Sandy will serve as the night’s master of ceremonies and the Hula Girls are also on the bill.
“I feel happy that so many people seem to love me,” Alvin says. “At the same time I’m embarrassed and humiliated by the situation.”
He’s also concerned that the initial ads bill the show as “The Original Blasters” with the Alvins, bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman, but Phil takes great pains to point out that Keith Wyatt — who’s played guitar in the band since 1996 — will also be playing with the band that night.
The Blasters formed in Downey in 1979 and their mix of blues, rockabilly and R&B soon found a following on the Hollywood club scene, where the band often shared the bill with such up-and-coming punk bands as X, Black Flag and the Go-Go’s.
With their 1980 debut album, “American Music,” the band gained more notice and shortly thereafter signed to Slash Records and released their self-titled 1981 set, which featured Alvin’s famously grimacing mug on the cover. Two more albums followed with more critical acclaim. They opened arena dates for Queen, were featured in the 1984 film “Streets Of Fire” and on “American Bandstand,” and John Cougar Mellencamp wrote a song for them, but ultimately the band was unable to cross the bridge from a critics’ darling cult act to mainstream success. Frustration set in, which led to the departure of Dave Alvin in 1986.
“At the time that it happened, I was the last to know,” Phil Alvin says. “As an older brother, I’ve always loved my brother, but brothers argue. That’s what they do, but I’ve never had any animosity or anything.”
While Dave Alvin has gone on to his own critically acclaimed solo career, he hasn’t forgotten his roots in the Blasters. He’s returned to the fold a few times over the years when they were in need, as was the case when Hollywood Fats died in 1986. In November of last year, when Phil was sidelined with a knee infection that led to surgery, Dave stepped in to lead the Blasters on a series of dates they already had booked.
The pair also played together — along with one-time Blasters sax man Steve Berlin — at Los Lobos’ Cinco De Mayo celebration at the Greek Theater. Dave Alvin was an announced special guest, but the crowd came alive when Phil sauntered onto the stage, sporting a white suit, to lead Los Lobos and his brother in a Spanish-language version of the Dave Alvin-penned Blasters song “Marie Marie.” The studio version, retitled “Maria Maria,” appears on “Fun on Saturday Night.”
That’s not the only song in the Blasters’ canon that reappeared in 2012. Critics favorite Jack White covered “I’m Shakin'“ on his solo debut, “Blunderbuss.” The song — written by Rudy Toombs, first recorded by Little Willie John — was one of the highlights on “The Blasters.”
Says Alvin, “In spite of all David’s great songwriting, when that song was getting on the radio, that’s when all the record companies started coming to us.” As for White’s version, “It’s a different kind of thing. He’s got different production elements and the chick singers in the background, but it’s good. I don’t know if it’s got the vocal calisthenics that Little Willie John or I had, but I’m glad he did it.”
CRAIG ROSEN is a Los Angeles music journalist.
What: Phil Alvin, Petunia & the Vipers
When: New Year’s Eve show, Dec. 31, doors 7:30 p.m. Alvin set at 9 p.m.; the Vipers at 10:30 p.m.
Where: Joe’s Great American Bar and Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank.
More info: (818) 729-0805, joesgreatbar.com