The more things change, the more they stay the same. Thirty-three years ago Billy Idol was tearing up the pop charts and taking over MTV while Dave and Phil Alvin were fronting The Blasters, playing unfashionable roots music to relatively tiny crowds.
Fast-forward to 2015, a there was Billy Idol, rebel-yelling his way through a greatest hits set in front of 10,000 fans at the Vector Arena while a day later Dave and Phil roll into town to play old blues and rockabilly songs to a few hundred enthusiasts.
No knock against Mr Idol, but I know where I’d rather be spending most of my time.
The Alvin Brothers have been raised on blues, r&b and early rock & roll, learning directly from the likes of Big Joe Turner, T Bone Walker and Lee Allen since their school days. They’ve been practicing what they learned ever since, whether it be with The Blasters, the hard-rocking band they formed in 1979 or their own solo projects.
Last year the two siblings reunited in the studio for the first time since 1985 to record Common Ground, a tribute to blues great Big Bill Broonzy. It’s that record that finally brought Dave and Phil Alvin to New Zealand after all these years.
Fortunately for us, Dave & Phil brought their band, The Guilty Ones…guitarist Chris Miller, bass player Brad Fordham and drummer Lisa Pankratz. So, while the blues formed the basis of what we heard, the band made sure it rocked with a steady roll.
With no opening act, The Alvins got things started just after 8:30pm, opening with All By Myself, the Big Bill Broonzy song that kicks off Common Ground.
The band was in fine form and by the time they got to the second Broonzy tune, I Feel So Good, Dave Alvin had already showed us what a stellar guitarist he is, turning in a stinging solo during the rollicking performance.
Brother Phil pulled out his harmonica, an instrument, we were told, taught to him by none other than Sonny Terry and he wailed his way through Broonzy’s best-known tune, Key To The Highway.
We got six Broonzy songs in a row, with younger brother Dave acting as MC, telling the stories behind the songs. He suggested the How You Want It Done?, a tune Broonzy wrote in 1929, was the first rockabilly song, then he and the band went on to prove it, giving the song an injection of rock and roll attitude.
After the opening salvo of Broonzy numbers, we got the first Blasters tune of the evening in the form of Border Radio, a song they released back in 1981. Dave took over vocals for Johnny Ace Is Dead, a song built around the now legendary story of the R&B star who shot himself backstage in Houston on Christmas Day, 1954.
Bass player Brad Fordham chimed in to add harmonies during Stuff They Call Money and Dave tried to get a little Merle Haggard jam going while hawking the merch table, but the band wasn’t having any of it.
Dave then introduced his song, What’s Up With Your Brother?, which he and Phil recorded for Dave’s album, Eleven Eleven, but as the song progressed it became clear that something was indeed up with Phil’s voice.
The elder Alvin began coughing off mic, struggling to get through the song.
Dave took over the vocals for Dry River, which wound up with a stunning drum solo by Lisa Pankratz that brought the evening to musical highpoint.
But things quickly changed for the set-closer One Bad Stud, with Phil’s voice packing in completely and Fordham’s bass amp causing trouble of its own. Frankly, it was a mess, which was a shame, because under better circumstances, this would have been a barn-burner.
The band returned to play 4th Of July, the song Dave wrote for X, when he was a member of that band. It sounded pretty good, but sadly, Phil could only stand and watch, occasionally strumming his acoustic guitar.
Phil did attempt to get through Marie Marie, one of the highlights of The Blasters’ songbook, but again, his throat let him down.
Dave took over from there, laying down the riff to The Doors’ Break On Through, introducing the band and eventually Phil took out his harmonica and we heard an instrumental version of The Blasters’ So Long Baby Goodbye.
It was a shame to have the Alvins travel so far to finally get here only to have Phil’s voice fail him, but hey, we’re lucky to have him here at all…he suffered an attack in 2012, that almost took him for good.
Fortunately there were plenty of great performances to remember, especially from Dave Alvin and his trusty guitar. And Dave and Phil Alvin proved that they have earned a place alongside their mentors…legends like Broonzy, Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton, T Bone Walker and Joe Liggins. We were lucky to get the opportunity to see and hear them.
Click on any image to view a photo gallery by Michael Flynn:
Dave & Phil Alvin set list:
- All By Myself
- I Feel So Good
- Key To The Highway
- You’ve Changed
- How Do You Want It Done?
- Southern Flood Blues
- Border Radio
- Johnny Ace Is Dead
- Stuff They Call Money
- Truckin’ Little Woman
- What’s Up With Your Brother?
- Dry River
- One Bad Stud
- 4th Of July
- Marie Marie
- Break On Through (To The Other Side)
- So Long Baby Goodbye