California son

Dave Alvin still carries the torch for American music, and he still lives to play

Dave Alvin, who certainly knows his way around this state.

Dave Alvin, who certainly knows his way around this state.

Live! 8:30 p.m. Friday, August 2, (sold out) and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, August 4, backed by the Guilty Men, at the Palms Playhouse, 726 Drummond Ave., Davis, $20.

Also, Sunday, September 1, as part of the original Blasters lineup (plus Gene Taylor), at the Strictly Bluegrass … Sort Of Festival at Sugar Bowl, 629 Sugar Bowl Rd., Norden, CA, $20, with the Noe Venable Trio, Blue Highway, Keystone Station and All Wrecked Up; the event begins at 1 p.m.

Despite its postcard images of toasty beaches and boulevards lined by palm and eucalyptus trees, large parts of California have more in common with Texas or Oklahoma than they do with some vision on an orange-crate label.

Dave Alvin grew up in Downey, a working-class suburb southeast of Los Angeles. Downey was a place where the orange groves got chopped down to make room for factories, which then lured workers from points east, to build things like airplanes and automobiles during America’s postwar boom. That westward impulse was chronicled in “The Promised Land,” rock ’n’ roll god Chuck Berry’s famous rewrite of “Wabash Cannonball.”

It was the mobile foursquare punch of Berry, along with his Chicago blues precursors and Memphis rockabilly contemporaries, that Alvin’s band the Blasters retooled, then served up to early ’80s punk-rock fans who welcomed a wicked new spin on the old miscegenation. And though Blasters frontman Phil Alvin may have had the perfect voice for such a fusion of swinging roots rock and nervous punk energy, it was his guitar-playing brother Dave whose songs stuck with you: “Marie Marie,” “No Other Girl,” “American Music.” (The Blasters’ three Slash Records studio albums and one live set were just reissued by Rhino as the two-disc set Testament, with bonus tracks added.)

But bands containing brothers—think the Kinks’ Ray and Dave Davies, or Oasis’ Noel and Liam Gallagher—can be, to put it politely, volatile. So after Alvin made a detour to play guitar for the Knitters, then X, he went solo in 1986 with an album on Epic, Romeo’s Escape. A passel of albums followed on HighTone, an Oakland-based blues and country label that suited Alvin’s new direction just fine: Blue Blvd., Museum of Heart, King of California, the live Interstate City, then Blackjack David. Alvin’s aptly titled Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land, which followed, won a Grammy for “Best Traditional Folk Recording” last year, and a new live set, Out in California, serves as a succinct career retrospective. Alvin also participated on the various-artist tributes to Merle Haggard (Tulare Dust) and Mississippi John Hurt (Avalon Blues); he played live shows to help promote both of those records.

Playing, it would seem, is in Alvin’s blood. “I love playing live more than I love to do anything else,” he says. “I’m really kind of tired of all the stuff that goes along with touring: I’m tired of the food, I’m tired of the hotel rooms, I’m tired of the drives, I’m tired of flying, I’m tired of everything. … But—for the two, two-and-a-half hours that I play onstage, it’s the greatest. I go through all the garbage, just to get that thing.

It’s itinerant work, playing music. And somewhere along that road, Alvin made a leap of transformation. A select group of songwriters, from Jimmie Rodgers to Chuck Berry to Bruce Springsteen to, perhaps, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Lucinda Williams, have been down that road—where the long nights and endless miles bring out a depth and richness of patina that wasn’t there before. Somewhere along that road, Dave Alvin turned into a great American voice—someone who can channel folk traditions, but who can crank up the reverb if the situation should call for it.

As a native Californian, Alvin seems aware of his own state’s contribution to American music—after all, two of his albums have “California” in the titles. “Born-and-raised songwriters from California, you’ve got everyone from Merle Haggard to Brian Wilson to Captain Beefheart to Tom Waits,” he says. “And if you go historically, so much great blues and R&B came out of California, and so much great country music developed out here—the whole Bakersfield sound of Merle and Buck [Owens] and Wynn Stewart.”

So when Dave Alvin gets up onstage with his band the Guilty Men for a pair of final shows at the Palms this weekend, it will spell the end of one California tradition, but the continuation of another.