Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Dave Alvin’s musical career has taken a number of twists and turns since he and his older brother Phil first emerged on the national music scene with their band the Blasters in 1979. Four critically acclaimed albums later, the younger Alvin grew tired of waiting for the public at large to catch on to their music. After leaving the Blasters, he served a short stint with the band X before launching a solo career in which he has released such critical favorites as Blue Blvd. and King of California. Widespread popularity continued to elude him, but by the mid-1990s Alvin seemed increasingly content to pursue his musical interests without the concerns of marketplace issues.
Alvin was born in 1955 in Los Angeles, California, and during his childhood his family lived in Downey, an industrial L.A. suburb. Even as youngsters, he and his brother Phil immersed themselves in music of all kinds. Roots blues, early rock and roll, cajun, country, and pop music all floated through the Alvin household, and as the brothers grew older they played in a variety of different bands. By the time the late 1970s rolled around, the Alvins decided to form a band that would honor the music they grew up with—music that they felt was the cornerstone of contemporary American rock and roll. At the same time, though, they intended to take that music into new and original directions.
The band that the Alvins formed became known as the Blasters. Their raucous rockabilly sound ignited concert crowds, and their first release, 1980’s American Music, caught the ears of discerning critics who recognized that a sizzling rock and roll outfit lurked behind the album’s poor sound quality. Subsequent Blasters albums—The Blasters (1981), Non Fiction (1983), and Hard Line (1985)— as well as an EP and a greatest hits collection, solidified the band’s reputation as talented and innovative translators of American roots rock, and their blistering live performances left concertgoers sweaty and satisfied. The band was unable to establish more than a cult following, though, and Alvin increasingly turned to side projects. He finally quit the band in 1985, frustrated with the Blasters’ inability to break through to mass popularity.
Alvin soon received an invitation to join another band. He had become acquainted with members of the West Coast band X in the mid-1980s when he played with the Knitters, a folk band that featured X band members. Alvin joined X in early 1986 and played on their See How We Care album, which was released the following year, but he soon decided to move on.
For the Record …
Born in 1955 in Los Angeles, CA; raised in Downey, CA.
Formed the Blasters with older brother Phil Alvin, 1979 (original lineup also included Bill Bateman, John Bazz, and Gene Taylor); released first album, American Music, 1980; left Blasters, 1985; joined X for one album (See How We Care); released first solo album, Romeo’s Escape, Epic, 1987; signed with HighTone and released three additional solo albums, including 1994’s King of California.
Addresses: Record company —HighTone Records, 220 4th St., No. 101, Oakland, CA 94607.
A solo recording career followed. Alvin’s first release, 1987’s Romeo’s Escape, was a tentative first step. Uncertain of his singing voice (his brother was the Blasters’ lead vocalist), Alvin admitted to Down Beat’s Fred Shuster that he “had to get drunk to do the vocals [on Romeo’s Escape], because there were things I wanted to do, but didn’t think I could. So we’d get a bunch of beer and some vodka and start working.”
But while Alvin was less than confident in his singing voice, he knew that he had other talents. Shuster called Alvin “among the classiest guitar stylists around,” while New Country’s Darryl Morden remarked that “Dave Alvin is one of the few artists capable of drawing on the spirits of both Woody Guthrie and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson for a populist vision of storytelling in a bluesy setting.” Critic Eric Weisbard, meanwhile, offered the following musing in the Spin Alternative Record Guide: “Merging country, blues, R&B, and rockabilly into roots rock? Ho hum. Dave Alvin goes a step further. He roots and rocks language, savoring the syllabic rhythms of America.”
In 1991 Alvin released Blue Blvd., his second solo outing. A spicy concoction of blues, country, gospel, Tex-Mex, and rockabilly influences, “the collection’s 11 fine songs … linger in the mind long after the disc has been put away,” noted Shuster. Two years later, Alvin put out his third album, Museum of Heart, which attracted little notice from critics or the record-buying public.
Alvin’s 1994 release, King of California, spurred a previously unseen wave of acclaim for the roots rocker. “On his fourth solo album,” wrote Morden, “Alvin turns down his guitar firepower for subtle acoustic textures, revealing his remarkable songwriting talents and creating the prettiest album he’s ever made…. [A] masterful album of sad beauty.” Rolling Stone contributor Paul Evans offered similar praise, remarking that “Alvin’s voice has gained the dignity his songs deserve—and as master of small-town laments, he ranks with [Bruce] Springsteen, John Hiatt and the colloquial [Bob] Dylan. With roots music currently at a sad ebb, this collection, spare and strong, proves the enduring appeal of songs from the land of the heart.”
King of California’s tales of down-on-their-luck drifters and ordinary souls trying to keep their hearts and lives intact in a sometimes cruel world struck a chord among many music critics and fans. Some even contended that Alvin’s vocals contributed to the album’s power. “Alvin’s hoarse baritone and his hit-and-miss pitch may put off some listeners,” said Stereo Review’s Alanna Nash, “but like Tom Waits, his rough-hewn performance style perfectly fits his poetry of the down-and-out.”
Alvin concedes that the album, which features a mix of cover songs, new material, and old Blasters tunes, was a special one to record. “Current trends and fads aside, I’ve wanted to do a ‘quieter’ collection of old, new, borrowed and blue songs for quite some time,” commented Alvin in a HighTone Records press release. “It can be difficult trying to please the people who want to hear sweaty, electric rock ‘n’ roll, as well as the fans who are more interested in contemplating the lyrics. I think King of California is mainly for the latter group.”
Alvin cited the subject matter of the album’s songs as a point of pride as well. “I’ve always been attracted to story-songs and on the title track, ‘King of California,’ I tell the story of a gold rush era dreamer who comes west looking for the promised land…. A lot of the songs on King of California have to do with people realizing their dreams may not come true and trying to figure out just where to go from there.”
With the Blasters
American Music, Rollin’ Rock, 1980.
The Blasters, Slash/Warner Bros., 1981.
Over There: Live at the Venue, London (EP), Slash/Warner Bros., 1982.
Non Fiction, Slash/Warner Bros., 1983.
Hard Line, Slash/Warner Bros., 1985.
The Blasters Collection, Slash/Warner Bros., 1990.
See How We Care, Elektra/Asylum, 1987.
With The Knitters
Poor Little Critter on the Road, Slash, 1986.
Romeo’s Escape, Epic, 1987.
Blue Blvd., HighTone, 1991.
Museum of Heart, HighTone, 1993.
King of California, HighTone, 1994.
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men, HighTone, 1996.
Weisbard, Eric, and Craig Marks, Spin Alternative Record Guide, Vintage, 1995.
Audio, October 1994, p. 61.
Down Beat, October 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, October 22, 1993.
New Country, June 1994.
People, November 22, 1993.
Playboy, February 1994; September 1994.
Rolling Stone, December 12, 1991; July 14-28, 1994.
Stereo Review, July 1994, p. 82.
Village Voice, May 31, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from HighTone Records promotional materials, 1995.
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