It’s been too long since Dave Alvin came to town. A feeling that the audience in Whelans would heartily agree with. Coming after excellent gigs there by JD McPherson and The Dirt Daubers, it was the third highlight in a two week period which would have made an excellent mini-festival triple bill. Tonight Alvin has his tightest combo in tow, a stripped down but highly efficient trio of drummer of Lisa Pankratz (the guiltiest of the Guilty Women), bassist Brad Fordham and second guitarist Chris Miller, all seasoned Austin-based musicians who deliver a master class on their individual instruments. All pay close attention to Alvin as he leads the band through an exhilerating set.
He opened with BlackJack Davy and made the first of several dedications to friends who have passed away; in this case for promoter Larry Roddy who had driven Alvin around on his first trip to Ireland. Roddy’s heart was always in the music he brought rather than in profit. Dave followed this with Hardin County Line that featured in the compelling TV series Justified. He quipped that “you guys couldn’t get tickets for Springsteen then?” making reference to the fact that the Boss was playing a sold out gig in Dublin that night. Throughout the gig Alvin made similar comment and seemed in fine spirits.
The set focused on the current Eleven Eleven album and mortality featured heavily on songs such as Johnny Ace Is Dead about the singer who accidently shot himself in the head on Christmas Day at a gig in Houston, Texas in 1954. He dedicated Black Rose Of Texas to Amy Farris, the violinist who toured with him as part of the Guilty Women band and who committed suicide. He also played Run Conejo Run for his best friend and running mate Chris Gaffney who died in 2008, who had been a part of Alvin’s band as well as a member of the Hacienda Brothers. This emotional song was to conjure up the spirit of his friend and was set to a taut Bo Diddley beat and featured some emotional guitar playing.
A song played early on was Long White Cadillac, which he noted was recorded by Dwight Yoakam - “that’s how I could afford this hat” he joked referring to the cowboy hat that is now a regular fixture of his stage persona, along with the neckerchief and snap-button shirts he wears onstage.
Guitar playing is what Dave Alvin is know for and tonight witnesses a stunning display that was never show-off but definitely did show off the talents of a unique and soulful player who is much underrated overall. In The Blasters, he noted, his brother Phil was the singer, the man with the monster voice while his role was to leap around the stage “dancing like a gazelle” with his guitar. While he may not be leaping around the stage too much these days his playing skills have not diminished.
He has grown into a strong and expressive singer as well as being, from the start, an excellent writer. Alvin closed the show with what he said was “the fourth song he’d ever written down Marie, Marie - previously, he said, all the songs he had composed were in his head. This song, written way back, had found a new meaning for him as the name of the Spanish doctor who had helped keep his brother Phil alive after recent major health problems in Spain. Throughout Alvin led the band through extended versions of songs that not only highlighted his undoubted talent, but also those of his current band, allowing each their space to shine. This was particularly notable in an extended drum solos from Pankratz in Dry River. Dave talked about he and brother Phil’s love of the blues and the mentoring and friendship they had with Big Joe Turner, something that was the subject of the song Boss Of The Blues.
For the encore he played a soulful version of Every Night About This Time a song he had written for George Jones. Dave related how he has been preparing to go to the session when he got a call to say “it’s off”. The record label had decided the song was “too country for George Jones”. That’s record labels for you. But it wasn’t too anything other than right for this audience and rounded off an evening that many will remember for a long time to come. A musical tour-de-force? Guilty as charged.
Review by Stephen Rapid, photography by Ronnie Norton