By Wayne Robins
On Eleven Eleven, Dave Alvin continues his transformation from journeyman musician to becoming one of the people he always idolized: the one of a kind bluesmen and storytellers, rock and rollers and poets, folk singers and road warriors whose influences he’s absorbed since he was a kid growing up fast in Downey, California.
The influences are still recognizable, of course, but breaking his longtime rule of never writing songs on the road–he wrote almost all of them in motel rooms on one of his endless tours–has strengthened Alvin’s voice, in both senses of the word.
The best songs are character studies or snapshots of history. “Gary, Indiana, 1959,” is told from the point of view of an old retired steelworker recalling the four-month strike that stands as one of the great triumphs of organized labor. In a few brief, clean lines, Alvin tells a story of that struggle, which underscores how much union power–along with a fairness in our society–continues to unravel while “the big boys make the rules.” The opening tune, “Harlan County Line” is a more personally shaded, one of those “memories I pretend to forget,” about a good woman who got away–not that the singer had a choice, or did anything wrong. “Said there was some trouble she had to handle back home,” across the Harlan County line.
“Johnny Ace is Dead” could be said to have a little to do with worker/management relations as well, if you wanted to stretch the point with a wink. It tells the familiar tale of the R&B singer whose ballad “Pledging My Love” was just starting to cross over in the earliest days of rock ‘ roll. Christmas night, 1954, Ace was backstage in Houston when he either shot himself accidentally or died playing Russian roulette between shows. The characters include Ace’s touring mate, Big Mama Thornton, who in Alvin’s version is a witness, and the slick label owner Don Robey, who doesn’t miss a beat in capitalizing on Ace’s death. The guitars speed like a runaway train, and both the song and performance feel like a cross between Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” and a great lost track from “Highway 61 Revisited.”
“Manzanita,” with occasional musical partner Christy McWilson and “No Worries Mija” are both ballads from a sad cafe on either side of the border. On slower tunes, Alvin now deploys the limited range of his voice with confidence: the resonance he gets from his throat sounds like a seventh guitar string.
“Murrietta’s Head” is a tour de force, a retelling of a 19th century California/Mexican legend. Murrietta was either a Robin Hood or pitiless killer; the governor put a price (literally, $3,000 or $5,000, depending on who’s telling the tale) on his head, which was also literal: Murietta was not to be taken alive, but his torso-less head had to be presented to collect the bounty.) Allen’s takes no sides, offers no judgment, but simply notes what lengths some people will go to in the name of protecting their families.
Alvin has seen a few close friends die since his 2004 album Ashgrove. “Black Rose of Texas” is a tribute to Amy Farris, the fiddle player who was part of Alvin’s Guilty Women band before her suicide in 2009. “Black Rose” has the plain spoken eloquence of a classic Merle Haggard tune. The closing song, “Two Lucky Bums,” is a duet with musician Chris Gaffney, often described as Alvin’s best friend, recorded before Gaffney’s 2008 death from liver cancer. This low-key shuffle sweetened by harmonica has the relaxed camaraderie of Gene Kelly-Fred Astaire duet.
These brushes with mortality may have enabled the album’s most memorable pairing, on “What’s Up With Your Brother,” the first time Dave and Phil Alvin have sung together on record. With riffs and beat freely drawn from Willie Dixon’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” the song makes fun of the professional fallout between the Alvin brothers that was once exaggerated to levels of animosity comparable to the musical brothers Everly, Davies, and Gallagher. The song mocks those exaggerations. The brothers alternate verses, comically cataloging their individual triumphs, only to be inevitably asked the question posed in the title of the song. It is perhaps an indication of the power of the songs and performances on Eleven Eleven that Dave Alvin will likely hear that question less and less as the road rolls on.