Phil Alvin is back from the dead. Literally.
After 30 years, he and his brother Dave have decided to find some “common ground,” and make music together again. And the music world is all the better for it.
For those who might not have heard, Phil was on tour in Spain a few years ago when he suddenly had to be taken to a hospital where he underwent treatment for an abscessed tooth which caused his throat to swell and almost close. His heart stopped and he flatlined twice. Only through the work of Dr. Mariella Anaya-Sifuentes—who is thanked in the liner notes to the new album—was his life saved.
And thus, the brothers Alvin decided to put aside their differences and put out an album together for the first time in 30 years. Such an amazing and improbable story is like the blues songs created by the early masters of the genre.
At a release party June 10, 2014 at Fingerprints Records in Long Beach, CA., 150-200 people paid for the new cd, Common Ground, and were given a short set of songs by Phil, Dave and the Guilty Ones. As a bonus, each audience member was given a promo poster for the night and Phil and Dave did a signing afterwards. For only $18.99, this was a night to remember.
As the commercial says, to see Phil and Dave on the same stage singing and playing together again was priceless.
With the Guilty Ones providing solid support on base, drums, and guitar, the Alvin brothers proceeded to rip through a fantastic set of their, and most notably, Big Bill Broonzy songs which are covered in Common Ground.
The opening song, “Harlan County Line,” saw only Dave, dressed with his porkpie hat and cowboy kerchief around his neck, and the Guilty Ones do a nice version of the song, but the anticipation for Phil’s appearance was palpable.
That came on the next song, “I Feel So Good,” as Phil, looking sturdy, but thinner than in recent years, took the stage. That began a string of five straight Bill Broonzy songs. The song rocked and the night was off and running.
Dave introduced “How You Want It Done” as being written in 1928, and the song sounded timeless in its remembering of how a man “gave satisfaction, all night long,” as he hopes his woman will call him again and “he’ll be there.” Phil’s voice was fantastic and once again you realized this is one of the greatest voices in all of rock and roll.
“Key to the Highway” was introduced as Broonzy’s most famous song, and Dave mentioned that Phil learned to play harmonica from Sonny Terry. They then proceeded to trade vocals with Phil’s harmonica filling the spaces as they followed Big Bill down the highway asking his “sweet mama, now help me with this heavy load” and “wonderin’ what evil I done.” The brothers nailed this blues shuffle, their voices heavy with weariness, knowledge and experience. Here’s the song from an April performance:
“Southern Flood Blues” contained haunting, sorrowful guitar interplay between the band members while Phil used his harmonica almost as an emotional entity unto itself.
Before “Truckin’ Little Woman,” Dave told of how they had listened to and hunted down Bronzy records since Phil has 13 years old. The song then kicked ass and was played almost as a Blasters song would be. (video above)
“Marie, Marie” and “4th of July” fit in perfectly with the mood of the night. They rocked, they told stories, and they showed that Phil and Dave Alvin learned their lessons well from Big Bill Broonzy and their master teachers at the school of blues. Dave’s guitar was blistering through “Marie, Marie.”
As the Guilty Ones played the instrumental “Saturday Night Rub,” Phil and then Dave left the stage to wild applause from the appreciative audience. The set was of course a bit truncated, and one got the feeling that they were just beginning to hit their groove. Though the show and songs were certainly a bit slower sometimes than a high energy Blasters’ show, neither was it a Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones show either. Rather, it was two brothers playing homage to one of the great blues players of all time and showing that they really understood these songs. Many musicians can play the blues, but only a select few understand it down to the souls of their existence. These two men, no longer youngsters, and their backing band, showed that the music of Big Bill lives on deeply within them, almost like a healing salve within their souls.
Overall, this was a joyous reunion. More than once during the night Dave looked over at Phil and just smiled. And so the tour begins. What will happen next is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that they have put together one of the best albums of the year and their live shows will only add to their legacy.
If you see them coming your way, you best wander on down and give them a listen.
You never know what life is going to throw at them, or at you, including near death experiences and possible miracles in Spain or elsewhere. Live life today and enjoy these players. They will make you remember why you started listening to music in the first place. I once said that the Blasters should have been a national treasure. Dave and Phil Alvin are the life sized diamonds in that treasure. And you’ve been blessed with the chance to see them for around $25. Sometimes life throws miracles your way too.
Harlan County Line
I Feel So Good
How You Want It Done
Key to the Highway
Southern Flood Blues
Truckin’ Little Woman
4th Of July (not on set list)
Saturday Night Rub (instrumental outro)
Off at 8:20