Saturday, August 29, 2009

Master Blaster - Dave Alvin gets personal on his two new albums

Master Blaster
Dave Alvin gets personal on his two new albums
by Michael Berick
From his early days as co-founder of the retro roots-rock band the Blasters to his solo career that yielded albums like Ashgrove (named for the legendary Los Angeles folk club that he haunted as a teen) and the aptly titled covers disc Public Domain, Dave Alvin's music has long been fueled by the past. But the past has never been as personal as with his two current projects, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women and Man of Somebody's Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney.
Both discs arose from the 2008 death of Chris Gaffney. A longtime fixture on the Southern California music scene, guitarist/accordionist Gaffney spent nearly a decade in Alvin's band the Guilty Men and was like a brother to him. They had grown up in neighboring, and decidedly untrendy, L.A. suburbs (Alvin in Downey and Gaffney in Hawaiian Gardens), but only met one night in the late '80s when Alvin happened upon Gaffney's band playing at the Hollywood rock dive bar, Raji's.
"It was one of those things where there are people that you feel have known your entire life except that you haven't met them yet," says Alvin. "It was one of those moments. We got each others' jokes — that's maybe the best type of friendship there is."
When Alvin learned Gaffney had cancer, he started to organize a benefit album. However, the fatal cancer moved swiftly, and the disc evolved into a tribute effort. Alvin assembled an all-star Americana team (including Los Lobos, James McMurtry, John Doe and Alejandro Escovedo), which perfectly reflects Gaffney's musical mosaic: from Joe Ely's Tex-Mex-flavored take on "Lift Your Leg" to Jim Lauderdale's honky-tonky "Glass House"; from Peter Case's rollicking rendition of "Six Nights a Week" to Dan Penn's heartaching "I'm So Proud."
One contributor that causes a double-take is Boz Scaggs. However, as Alvin explains, Scaggs (owner of two Bay Area clubs) is a fan of both Alvin's work and Gaffney's last band, the Hacienda Brothers. He says Scaggs' silky, soulful rendering of "Midnight Dreams" is "one of the best things I think he has ever done."
The disc also contains the late Freddy Fender's version of the Gaffney song "The Gardens." Alvin reveals that several acts "wanted to get their mitts" on the song, but he chose this mid-'90s recording Fender made with the Texas Tornados because "when Freddy Fender sings one of your songs, that is pretty damn good."
In his own music, Alvin very much felt Gaffney's absence. "I had done a few gigs with my normal band [the Guilty Men]. They were great and cathartic, but I was still looking around for Chris," says Alvin. "I just thought, let's do something different, and European techno was out."
For a show at last year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, he put together an all-female band with some of his favorite Americana ladies: guitarists Cindy Cashdollar and Nina Gerber, fiddlers Laurie Lewis and Amy Farris, bassist Sarah Brown, drummer Lisa Pankrantz and singer-songwriter Christy McWilson.
Despite a lack of practice time ("We rehearsed going on stage," jokes Alvin), their set was a success. "I was stunned," says Alvin. "I knew it would be good. I didn't think it would sound like a band that had been on the road for about a year. Walking off the stage, it was like, 'We're making a record.'"
The group, dubbed the Guilty Women, reconvened about two months later at an Austin recording studio. Alvin conducted a swift recording session to get the live, organic sound. While recording the old Tim Hardin gem "Don't Make Promises," for example, Alvin, Cashdollar and Gerber broke off into a spontaneous four-minute jam. That song also fits in with the album's reflective mood.
"A lot of the songs are based around death and passings," says Alvin.
Although there isn't a specific tune about Gaffney, "Downey Girl" deals with the life and death of Downey native Karen Carpenter, while the plaintive McWilson song "Potter's Field" squarely addresses morality. "Boss of the Blues" and "Nana And Jimi" both look back at youthful episodes (riding around with Big Joe Turner and going to see a Jimi Hendrix concert) that influenced Alvin's musical career.
The album is far from a downer, though. It opens with the Blasters' hit "Marie, Marie" done Cajun-style and closes with a roadhouse take on the standard "Que Sera Sera," which Alvin remarked "is my philosophy of life."
With these two discs, Alvin pays homage to the past and his late, great friend, while also moving forward with a "what will be, will be" attitude.
from Cleveland Scene

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Elvis Costello At The Greek Theater, Aug. 18, 2009

As I was waiting to see Elvis Costello the other night at the Greek Theater, I was trying to recall the other times that I have seen. The memory that overwhelmed the others was the first time, which I realized (for better or for worse) was 30 years ago. It was a show at the Cleveland Agora, just after his infamous blowup with Bonnie Bramlett in Columbus, Ohio in which he drunkenly badmouthed Ray Charles. That show was a blast of the angry, young Elvis that ended with the blare of ear-splitting white noise to clear the club. It was quite different Costello who took the Greek stage. He was more relaxed and friendlier - and also backed by an all-star bluegrass outfit instead of the Attractions or another rock-based backing group.
While I don’t yet have his new disc Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, I have been a fan of his initial country outing, the influential-in-its-own-way, Almost Blue, and was curious about how the latest musical guise of the chameleon-like Costello would be.
I enjoyed the show immensely, although I could see how fans wanting to hear that favorite old Elvis faithfully performed might be disappointed. There was no “pumping it up” at this concert. No Steve Nieve keyboard work. No Pete Thomas drums – no drums at all. In fact, little in the way of electric instruments. The Sugarcane band, however, provided him with a rich swatch of acoustic textures, with fiddler Stuart Duncan and dobro ace Jerry Douglas particularly standing out.
It was the set list that made this show is truly special evening. While there were expected selections from his newer, Americana based discs as well as a classic Almost Blue gem “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” he also reinvented several his older, well-known tunes plus delved into a number of eclectic covers. Longtime fans could feel at home with his twangier interpretations of his old standards like “Blame It On Cain,” “Everyday I Write The Book” and a somewhat Mariachi-flavored take on “Red Shoes.” And I’m sure the faithful left happy that he closed the set with “Allison.” The dapperly dressed Costello also scattered some choice covers throughout the set, from the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” to the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” He did two tunes with opening act Lucinda Williams – one was the humorous Williams song “Jailhouse Tears” and the other an exuberant version of the Stones’ ‘Happy.”
Costello’s Sugarcane crop proved to be one of his more successful musical harvest, at least to this longtime Costello and Americana fan.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Americana Music Festival - Countdown to Kickoff

The Americana Music Festival is now less than a month away, and I will be returning after a several year hiatus.
While the festival is turning the big 1-0, its award ceremony has only been around for 8 years. This year, the AMA will be celebrating the lifetime achievements of bluegrass progressive Sam Bush, western swing revivalists Asleep At The Wheel and ace producer Jim Rooney, who has helmed works by John Prine, Iris DeMent, Nanci Griffith and more.
The evening showcases offer an array of interesting Americana acts – and of course it’s own share of logical dilemmas. For example, who to see midnight on Wednesday night – Raul Malo, the Deadstring Brothers or Charlie Robison, all artists I’ve written about but never seen. Or what about Saturday night, when Webb Wilder, Buddy Miller and the trio of Nanci Griffith, Mary Gauthier & Elizabeth Cook are all performing at different stages.
So there will be quandaries like those to resolve as well as just seeing how my legs and general stamina holds up.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hey, Hoge

It was a real treat to see Will Hoge perform earlier this week as he passed through Los Angeles for an early set at the Mint. A treat because it reminded me what a terrific, if over-exposed roots rocker he is. It was also good to see that the Nashville-based musician was still just alive and kicking after being hit last year by a van while he was riding on his scooter. The main consequence of this accident – at least in this show - just seemed to be that he sat down more than he used to.
But the music was still as strong as ever. On his electric numbers, he conjured up the spirit of a younger Bruce Springsteen, much like his fellow rootsy neo-classic rockers like Marah and Hold Steady. Hoge’s songs this evening, however, favored more relationship-based songs rather than the character-flavored tunes that those aforementioned bands favor. On his acoustic songs, I got to thinking that any of these could be easily picked up by some better known Nashville acts – although they undoubtedly wouldn’t match Hoge’s ragged charms.
Hoge, who looks a little like Law & Order’s Jeremy Sisto, flashed his Southern civility when he complimented the club’s soundman for fixing his microphone during a song, while also serving up a dig at the Troubadour. Mostly it was a night for Hoge to showcase tracks from his upcoming disc, The Wreckage, while also touching on some older songs. He closed his all-too-short set with a Wreckage track “Hard To Love” but Hoge was very easy to love if you are a fan of well-crafted blue-collar rock ‘n’ roll. Hopefully, his new album will give him a well-deserved career boost.