At age 55, Dave Alvin already has quite a legacy behind him. He was the guitarist for 80s roots-rockers The Blasters and LA punk rockers X before setting out on a solo career that found him winning a Grammy in 2000 for “Best Contemporary Folk Album”.
But all of that seems to have been leading up to Eleven Eleven, Alvin’s finest achievement so far.
Over the years Alvin’s voice has aged and mellowed into a smooth, deep baritone that turns out to be the perfect instrument to tell his wonderful stories. Because that’s what Dave’s songs are, stories set to music. And what a storyteller he is. His characters practically come to life while he sings. There’s the steel working man with two kids and a loving wife in Gary Indiana 1959, the Latino boxer-turned-singer in Run Conejo Run and the back robber who tries to assure his girl that everything will turn out alright…”I’m gonna make us some money, but if anything should happen…in No Worries Mija.
Even better is Alvin’s account of the real-life events surrounding the death of an up-and-coming r&b singer in Johnny Ace Is Dead. Ace accidentally killed himself backstage before a show in Houston, Christmas night 1954 playing Russian roulette. Alvin puts us right in the middle of the action bringing blues singer Big Mama Thornton and record label owner Don Robey onto the scene to paint the picture of the tragic demise of a “young and handsome prince of the blues”. Paul Simon covered the same topic on his Late Great Johnny Ace, which took a fan’s perspective. Here, we’re right in the middle of the action. Along the way, Alvin whips out a killer rockabilly guitar solo.
That’s what makes this such a satisfying record. Along with the great stories, we get some of the finest roots-rock you’ll be likely to hear this year. Harlan County Line has a blusey swing and a stinging guitar solo, Run Conejo Run is driven by a sinister Bo Diddley beat and piano player Gene Taylor provides some wicked barrelhouse blues on Gary Indiana 1959.
The Blasters featured two Alvin brothers, Dave and his older brother Phil, who sang lead. Over the years they’ve had their differences, which is what makes What’s Up With Your Brother so much fun. Dave and Phil duet for the first time, trading verses on a song who’s chorus askes the question that follows both of them wherever they go. If this one doesn’t put a smile on your face, nothing will.
On the flip-side, the album closes on a poignant note. Two Lucky Bums finds Dave singing with his best buddy Chris Gaffney of the Hacienda Brothers. Gaffney passed away from liver cancer shortly after the recording.
I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed listening to an album so much from beginning to end. Dave Alvin has put together one of the finest collections of songs I’ve heard in a long time and the playing is rooted in the best elements of rock & roll, country, blues and soul. Get this one immediately.
Click here to listen to Johnny Ace Is Dead from Eleven Eleven: