Brothers Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin in 1979 were founding members of the Blasters who gained international recognition playing with bands like X, Black Flagg, the Cramps and Queen. The music was called L.A. punk roots and rockabilly, but the brothers learned music playing blues by mentors Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker and Lee Allen. Phil was 12 when he started harmonica lessons with Sonny Terry. The Blasters’ best known song was a cover of Little Willie John’s 1959 tune “I’m Shakin.’ Jack White’s recent version of the song is basically a cover of the Blasters cover, which is highlighted by Phil Alvin’s shouting blues vocals. Dave Alvin left the Blasters in 1986 to pursue a solo career and other projects. After a Phil survived a serious health issue in 2102, the brothers decided to make their first record together in almost 30 years. On June 3 Yep Roc released “Common Ground: Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy.” PURCHASE
Here’s the interview with Tahoe Onstage’s Tim Parsons for Blues Music Magazine:
Q Is it true this reunion was inspired by a close call with Phil?
Phil: I had a close call, a brush with death, in Spain in June 2012. And I guess that motivated David. I always liked playing with David, periodically, since the Blasters, and we did a song together on his last record (in 2004), “4-11-44.” But I think the imminent flat lining possibility probably motivated things a little bit.
Q How is your health, Phil?
Phil: I am doing fine. I was doing fine afterward. But they gave me a tracheostomy so I had to let that heal before I could do anything.
Dave: Phil and I hadn’t made a full studio record together since the Blasters “Hardline” in 1985. Over the last few years both of us have lost family members and very close friends. It just seemed like time. We’d never done a full album together, just the two of us. It was always in relation to the Blasters in a band concept. I just thought the sooner we can get this done the better because no one knows how much longer we’re hanging around. So I called Phil up and asked if he wanted to do some Big Bill Broonzy songs and he said, “Yeah.” We did four songs and that sounded really good (then decided to make a) whole album. He had not only great material but material that will stand all sorts of styles from ragtime, finger-picking blues to Chicago blues to urban blues to jump blues. There was a lot to choose from.
Q One of the songs was “You’ve Changed.” How did your working relationship change?
Phil: Of course on “You’ve Changed,” I don’t sing, so that changed. And we didn’t have anything to fight about.
Dave: We hold Big Bill in such high regard, there was really nothing to fight about. I think the only heated discussion that we got in over anything was over an F sharp note that I wasn’t playing. … Then he showed me, and I said, ‘Oh, you’re right.”
Q You used to fight?
Phil: The whole band fought.
Dave: We all grew up together. Phil was already playing with Big Joe Turner and Lee Allen when he was 16 years old. Guys like that were part of our childhood — Lee Allen, the great tenor sax player from New Orleans who was on all the Fats Domino, Little Richard and Professor Longhair records — we grew up with them. The Blasters, it’s a hackneyed phrase now, but we were a family band and we would fight.
Q: I hear Big Joe Turner in Phil, and both of your singing styles have the cadence and delivery that you hear with blues.
Phil: The first time I saw Big Joe Turner it was just magic. I have a loud voice and I used to imitate Joe Turner. He gave me a piece of advice that was stunning. I think I was 18 when he said, “Why don’t quit embarrassing me and yourself and sing in your own voice?” That was good advice. From that day on I took off the affectation and sang in my voice. But I left the cadence and the Joe Turner style of jump blues, blue shouting. I think Bill was sort of a blues shouter, too. I was into Big Bill before I was into Joe Turner. I think both of them affecting my singing style quite a bit.
Q: Did Big Bill write all of the songs on “Common Ground”?
Dave: They were all written by Big Bill. “Key to the Highway” was co-written by Jazz Gillum. I was on the BMI site and I went through everything. The songs I picked were a mixed bag.
Q How did you decide which to use?
Dave: I was about 13 and he was about 15, when Phil brought home a reissue album and there were certain songs on there — “Bill Bill Blues,” “Feel So Good” — that Phil started singing immediately. He would perform them in the blues band he had as a teenager. So that one was a given. We have to do some of those. My other criterion was stretching the boundaries. He did a song like “All By Myself” from about 1940 and I thought the music of “Long Tall Woman,” the guitar part, would work great underneath.
Q So you arranged hybrid songs?
Dave: Big Bill’s styles changed. Like on his early recordings “Long Tall Woman” and “How You Want it Done,” they were structured around guitar. And later on through the late ’30s and ’40s, he was in a band context with a piano, sometimes trumpet, sometimes saxophone, sometimes harmonica. I wanted to capture all those styles that he not only played but what he influenced. So when I chose “Southern Flood Blues” when I was a kid I liked the imagery of the song. But what I am doing on the guitar is a combination of as if Big Bill Broonzy and Magic Sam made a record together. The chords and the progression are Big Bill chords but the solo parts are all sort of Magic Sam. So, yeah, I was looking for things where I could stretch the boundaries a little bit. Or you mentioned the song “You’ve Changed” which he cut as a pretty straight-ahead horn-driven jump blues and I always dug the lyrics but I thought well one of his more popular pieces was a song called “Hey Hey.” I thought, “You’ve Changed is a more obscure song but “Hey Hey” has that great guitar part. So I figured we’ll take the guitar part from “Hey Hey” and make it electric and then use the lyrics from “You’ve Changed.”
Q: What about “Stuff They Call Money” and “All By Myself”? On those you sing a dual back-and-forth.
Phil: We figured we’d have some dual things in there and “All By Myself” was a good one to do, with the paradox of not being all by yourself. I had never heard of “Stuff they Call Money” until David found it. It’s like a hokum song. Big Bill also made records with Georgia Tom Dorsey in that style and he was in the Hokum Boys. Those were two songs that afforded us to swap lines
Dave: He recorded “Stuff They Call Money” with Washboard Sam and they are swapping vocals … and I thought Phil has the voice to pull off the hokum stuff. He’s got the voice to pull anything off but I thought for me to jump in on that we need to approach it a different way so instead of a hokum style, I did it sort of Jimmy Reed. Big Bill, especially later in his career, he felt comfortable enough to write social commentary and songs about race relations. “Stuff They Call Money” is a playful social commentary, but he did songs that due to our skin color we can’t honestly do. Stuff like “Get Back” — “If you’re white, it’s all right. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re black, get back.” He was one of the blues guys who dealt with some pretty big issues. “The Stuff They Call Money” is pointed yet playful and I wanted to get that part of Big Bill in. It’s also in that song “Just a Dream,” a playful, sarcastic look at how things be sometimes.
Q: Was the arrangement on “Trucking Little Woman” a nod to Blasters fans?
Phil: It’s going to sound like the Blasters if I’m singing (with) guitar playing the boogie-woogie licks. There’s not much you can do about it and I wasn’t trying to do anything about it. But yeah, the Blasters deserve a nod there.
Dave: It’s not like we set out and said, “We need one that sounds like the Blasters.” It happened organically. When we were finished, it was, “Wow, that sounds like a Blasters record.”
Q: The album ends most appropriately, I feel, with the instrumental “Saturday Night Rub.”
Phil: That was just to show what a Big Bill Broonzy ragtime style was like as best we could. I don’t know if you’ve heard the original. It’s just phenomenal. “Saturday Night Rub” is a magical song. I wasn’t involved in the sequencing but I think that’s a good place for it to have been.
Q: Will you be touring on this album?