Music News & Reviews

Alvin brothers: Losing no more time playing apart

Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, brothers and founders of the Blasters, will perform in Grass Valley on Sunday.
Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, brothers and founders of the Blasters, will perform in Grass Valley on Sunday.

For several anxious hours in 2012, it looked like brothers Dave and Phil Alvin would never make music together again.

But last year, the siblings teamed up on “Common Ground,” an album on which they covered songs by blues legend Big Bill Broonzy. Now they have released “Lost Time,” which features their stirring versions of a dozen blues tunes.

This sort of musical reunion might have eventually happened on its own. But Dave Alvin said that nearly losing his brother accelerated the process.

Singer Phil Alvin was on tour in Spain with the current edition of the Blasters (the band that included Dave Alvin until he started his solo career). The singer developed an infection that blocked his breathing. He was taken to a hospital, where several times his heart stopped on the operating table before doctors revived him and reopened his airway.

At home in California, brother Dave mistakenly received the worst of news.

“It was nuts,” he said in a late August phone interview. “Yeah, I got a phone call out of the blue, you know, ‘Your brother died.’ That whole little period is kind of a blur. I remember sitting out on the balcony outside my music room, staring out at the sky and just going like (in a dazed monotone) ‘Uhhh-hhhh.’ …

“It was probably about a half hour later I got a phone call saying ‘No, he’s just in a coma. He’ll be a vegetable for the rest of his life.’ And it’s ‘Uhhh-hhhh.’ Then you get phone call, ‘Nope, he’s awake,’ but he may have suffered brain damage. ‘Uhhh-hhhh’

“And in that period, through all of those phone calls until I finally got the one that said ‘Nope, he’s going to be OK,’ I was, yeah, go down the list of regrets. ‘Maybe I should have done this.’ ‘Why did I call him a jerk?’ ‘Why did I call him this?’ And blah, blah, blah, blah,” Dave Alvin said. “And then that’s kind of when I decided we’ve got to make some records together. ‘I don’t know what we’ll do, but we’ll make some records together. He’s my brother, dammit.’ 

The Alvins, along with longtime friends Bill Bateman (drums) and John Bazz (bass) formed the Blasters in 1979 and enjoyed a rich musical run that produced three stellar studio albums made up mostly of Dave Alvin originals. But tensions grew within the band.

“Inside the Blasters was a fight,” Alvin said. “And it wasn’t just my brother and me fighting. The whole band, we all grew up together.”

The guitarist found it increasingly difficult to write songs for someone else – brother Phil – to sing. Finally, in 1986, Dave Alvin quit, joining the punk group X for a short time before focusing fully on his solo career.

In reuniting, the Alvin brothers found the best approach – at least for now – was to do albums of cover songs. On “Lost Time,” they perform a dozen songs written by various blues artists – including four by Big Joe Turner, who early in the Alvins’ music career befriended and mentored the brothers.

The songs on “Lost Time” may have been written by outside artists, but Dave Alvin said there was a unifying concept behind the album.

“It really kind of boils down to, I wanted to get the best vocals I could out of my brother,” he said. “Because there are not a lot of singers like my brother – there just aren’t. I wanted to capture that. I wanted to capture what a great singer (he is). It’s a unique voice, and it’s a powerful voice.”

The songs that were chosen for “Lost Time” make for a rich album that ranges from the hard-swinging Turner tune, “Hide and Seek” to the gospel-tinged “World’s in a Bad Condition” to the jazzy Kansas City blues of “Cherry Red Blues.”

Dave Alvin doesn’t rule out eventually writing an album of originals for a Dave and Phil album or even a Blasters project. But for now, fans will have to be content with seeing the brothers tour behind “Lost Time,” with the Guilty Ones (drummer Lisa Pankratz, bassist Brad Fordham and guitarist Chris Miller) serving as the backing band.

“It will probably be some of the Bill Broonzy stuff from the last record and probably, I would say, about half of this (“Lost Time”) record,” Dave Alvin said of the song set. “The rest will be, like, songs of mine and songs that I wrote for my brother to sing in the Blasters. Then, yeah, sometimes, things that we did not plan to play (will get performed). I like to leave sections, parts of our shows, that are open ended, let’s say. …

“My brother doesn’t particularly care for that. He likes to run a tight ship. But I like to run a tight ship that’s a little loose.”

Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones

What: Two shows in the Sacramento area by brothers Dave and Phil Alvin

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 27

Where: The Center for the Arts, 314 W. Main St., Grass Valley

Cost: $20-$30

When: 8 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 1

Where: Harlow’s, 2708 J St., Sacramento

Cost: $27.50-$30