Friday Top 5: Dave Alvin

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Dave Alvin perform live twice over the past few years.

The first time was at the 2004 Americana Music Conference shortly after the release of his 2004 album Ashgrove. His performance came a little later in the night, and by that time the crowd had thinned out a bit at The Mercy Lounge. I was able to score a spot near the front of the stage right next to one of the big stacks of speakers.

Big mistake.

Don’t get me wrong… The show was great. Dave and his band shredded through the highlights from the new album and even threw in a few favorites from his days with The Blasters, the roots rock band he started with his brother Phil back in the late 70’s. It was as good of a performance as I saw that weekend. And I saw a lot that weekend.

The problem came the next morning when I woke up in my hotel room with a muffled ringing still sounding in my ears. If Dave Alvin isn’t the best guitar player I’ve ever seen (and he’s certainly in the discussion), he was certainly the loudest and most powerful. Fortunately, the ringing stopped later that day, and my hearing returned to normal. When I caught Dave playing with The Knitters at the Mercy Lounge as part of the 2005 conference, I made sure to hang back a bit in the crowd far away from any Marshall stacks.

We honor Dave Alvin in the Top 5 today in part because he celebrates a birthday next week, and in part because his music has been on my mind a bit this week with the recent release of Dave Alvin: The Best of the Hightone Years CD. Dave is also very hard at work right now organizing a tribute album for his dear friend Chris Gaffney who lost a battle with liver cancer earlier this year. That album is tentatively set for a March 2009 release.

Anyway… here are some of my favorite Dave Alvin tunes.

“Ashgrove” is the title track from Dave’s 2004 album and is one of the main songs responsible for the temporary hearing loss I mentioned earlier. When Dave was growing up in California, he and his brother used to sneak into an old blues club called The Ashgrove to see the blues legends play. This song is a tribute to The Ashgrove, but it’s also a bit of a mission statement for Dave. When he shouts, “I’m gonna play the blues tonight man ’cause that’s what I do,” he sums up an emotion that so many of us feel from time to time. No matter the laundry list of problems that exist in the world or the daily annoyances that can bring a man to his knees… the music is here to take us all away. For Dave Alvin, the music gives him a reason to exist and keep going.

Dave Alvin: Ashgrove (Buy Album)

We’re going to stay in California for our next few songs as well. First is a gentle acoustic number called “King of California,” the title track from Dave’s 1994 album. The next two are slightly livelier numbers from an appearance on Austin City Limits in 1999. The entire performance was released last year on New West Records. “Dry River” doesn’t mention California specifically, but I’ve always envisioned the concrete banked L.A. River when listening to this tune. “Out in California” is simply a chance for Dave to flex his guitar muscle a bit while pining over the girl he left behind in his home state.

Dave Alvin: King of California (Buy Album)
Dave Alvin: Dry River (Buy Album)
Dave Alvin: Out in California (Buy Album)

We move to Texas for the final track, “Abilene” from 1998’s Blackjack David. The moral of this story is that you should know what you’re running into before you run away from where you are. Your heart breaks for the girl who never seems to run to the right place.

Dave Alvin: Abilene (Buy Album)

Bonus Track: Earlier, I briefly mentioned a band called The Knitters. The Knitters is a country side project made up of the members of California punk band X with Dave Alvin on lead guitar. Dave doesn’t sing much in this setting, those duties are handled by X’s John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Here is their version of Dave Alvin’s “Dry River.”

The Knitters: Dry River (Buy Album)

One Response to “Friday Top 5: Dave Alvin”

  1. More about me Says:

    Thank you for posting this! I had sort of forgotten about Alvin for a bit and it’s great to be reminded. I actually saw him with the Blasters, own the Knitters CDs and am now going to have to go and see if the new release has any of the stuff I don’t own. Love your blog and appreciate the time you take to share the music.

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