“We argue sometimes, but we never argue about Big Bill Broonzy,” says Dave Alvin when explaining why he and brother Phil, who haven’t made an album together in almost 30 years, were inspired to record ‘Common Ground: Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy’ set forJune 3 release on Yep Roc. The Alvin brothers, who founded seminal early LA punk roots band The Blasters in 1979, have shared a fascination with Broonzy since childhood. After an illness nearly took Phil’s life in 2012, they resolved to return to the studio and pay tribute to the blues legend.
‘Common Ground’ includes 12 songs that capture a 30-year cross section of Broonzy’s canon, performed by the Alvins’ in their signature style of rollicking roots and stomping country blues. Billboard has the premiere of album track “All By Myself” and an exclusive Q&A here: XXXX
“He looked so slick,” says Phil about the cover of his first Broonzy album, which he purchased in a department store at age 12. Dave agrees, “I remember the day Phil brought that record home. It’s a strong childhood memory – like stealing a Playboy for the first time.”
The Alvins’ interpretations of Big Bill range from faithful to loose and Dave and Phil both play guitar and sing. They are joined on some tracks by Dave’s band members Lisa Pankratz (drums) and Brad Fordham (bass) as well as The Blasters’ pianist Gene Taylor. Other tracks feature noted session musicians Bob Glaub (bass) and Don Heffington (drums). All tracks were recorded at Winslow Court Studios in Los Angeles, CA.
Though this is their first album together in decades, the Alvin brothers collaborated last year on ‘Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,’ the critically acclaimed “southern gothic supernatural musical” by Stephen King, John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett. They also sang a duet on “What’s Up With Your Brother” for Dave’s last Yep Roc release ‘Eleven/Eleven.’
Dave and Phil will tour extensively in 2014, including dates with the popular Roots on Rails series in April. A Record Store Day exclusive release of four songs from ‘Common Ground’ cut at 45RPM on two 10-inch records packaged as a 78-style album book will also be available via Yep Roc on April 19.
Watch a live version of “Johnny Ace is Dead,” from the Eleven Eleven Expanded Edition:
Eleven Eleven features three duets: Phil and Dave on the simmering blues “What’s Up With Your Brother”; Dave and Christy McWilson from the Guilty Women on the gentle country number “Manzanita” and the whimsical song, “Two Lucky Bums,” the final recording of Dave and his best friend, the late Chris Gaffney. The rest of the material, rich in stories that stretch from R&B royalty to labor history to Harlan County in Kentucky, was written over the course of seven months. As he says with sly chuckle: “The songs are not necessarily true, but they¹re all autobiographical.”
“It is the first album in which every song was either written or conceived on the road,” Dave says. “When I go on the road, I shut off that part of my brain. It¹s really hard for me to write while touring, but I wanted to try something different on this album.”
“Whenever we had a break and I’d return home, I’d call my revolving cast of the regular guys, see who was available to go in and record, cut a song, and head back on tour. With the exception of (the late legendary R&B saxophonist) Lee Allen, I had never used anybody from the Blasters on my solo records. Then I thought, well why not use them?”
While the backing cast varies, the constant through Eleven Eleven is Dave’s assured guitar-playing, whether it’s finger-picking on an acoustic against an accordion on “No Worries Mija” or blazing riffs on electric over a Bo Diddley beat on “Run Conejo Run.” Eleven Eleven reunites Dave with pianist Gene Taylor, whose barrelhouse blues sound has not been heard on an Alvin project since the final Blasters album, 1985′s “Hard Line.”
Taylor was one of several blues veterans who would pass through the band Dave and Phil Alvin founded in their hometown of Downey, Calif., in the late 1970s. Beginning in 1980 with the Blasters’ debut album, Dave’s songwriting pioneered the marriage of punk attitude with blues, California country and rockabilly. The brothers called it “American music”; it would eventually be labeled by others as roots rock.
The Blasters released four studio albums between 1980 and 1985 and Dave’s songs “Marie, Marie,” “Border Radio” and, of course, “American Music” became staples of the burgeoning genre.
Dave’s solo career began with 1987′s “Romeo’s Escape” and in 2000 he won the traditional folk Grammy for his collection of songs from the early part of the 20th century, Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land.
Soon thereafter he began recording for Yep Roc, which released his last three albums, West of the West, Ashgrove and Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women.
“The songs on Eleven Eleven, Dave says, “are all about life, love, death, loss, money, justice, labor, faith, doubt, family and friendship. The usual stuff.”
“Mortality has been an issue on my mind ever since Ashgrove.. Since finishing that album, I lost some great friends — Gaffney, Amy Farris and Buddy Blue of the Beat Farmers. That weighed on me.”
The result is an album with songs rich in vivid stories, taking listeners on a bounty hunt in “Murrietta’s Head,” a tawdry scene of seduction in “Dirty Nightgown” and a true crime recollection in “Johnny Ace is Dead.” Dave’s guitar work punctuates each tale, reinforcing moments of urgency, remorse and reflection.
Despite making the album with different musicians at sessions separated by weeks of time, Dave was consistent in getting a gritty, bluesy feel from start to finish. The studio, and engineer Craig Adams, played significant roles in getting that feel.
He recorded the album at Winslow Court Studio in Hollywood, the same studio where West of the West and Ashgrove were recorded, both of which Adams engineered.
“Winslow Court is an old Foley studio from the 1930s,” Dave says. “It’s about the size of Sun Studios and you can have everyone in a circle so you can make eye contact. A lot of the musical dynamics and the arrangement on the record comes just from being able to see each other. If everyone were in a cubicle you wouldn’t get that vibe.”
It’s also the one studio where Dave can place his amp beside him and turn up the volume to capture the essence of a live recording.
“All great records, up to a certain point in time, were just a bunch of guys in a room. The Blasters tended to record the same way, but because of concerns of engineers I wouldn’t get my amp right next to me. The way Craig won me over was during the recording of Ashgrove. I asked ‘mind if I make it louder?.’ That was one of the few times an engineer has said ‘turn it up.’”