Dave Alvin: The wisdom of Big Joe Turner and making up for Lost Time | Music

Dave Alvin: The wisdom of Big Joe Turner and making up for Lost Time


Dave Alvin (left) and his brother, Phil - PHOTO BY JEFF FASANO
  • Photo by Jeff Fasano
  • Dave Alvin (left) and his brother, Phil
Dave Alvin and his big brother, Phil, made roots-rock cool in the ‘80s with The Blasters. Between Phil’s phenomenally soulful singing and Dave’s incisive songwriting and searing licks, they stirred up something special. But they parted ways in 1986, with Dave going on to a distinguished solo career and Phil continuing to lead various lineups of The Blasters. Despite some reunion shows in the 2000s, the Alvins never recorded again until their 2014 duo record, Common Ground, an album of Big Bill Broonzy songs. With another Alvins album of covers out, Lost Time, Dave shed some light on the brothers’ motivations.

Dave and Phil Alvin play Cat's Cradle tonight, Sunday, Oct. 18, at 8 p.m. Dead Rock West opens.

INDY: What made you decide to do a second duo album with Phil?
DAVE ALVIN: I’d like to make up for the time I lost [not] playing with my brother. My brother has a unique voice. I want to capture it as much as I can, because time is short. My brother had died. This is true, he had died [on a Blasters tour] in Valencia, Spain about three years ago, and he was brought back to life. I got a phone call in California from Spain, someone telling me, “Your brother passed away.” And it was five minues or so until I got the phone call saying they brought him back. So in that five minutes, I was kind of going through the list of regrets. Besides personal stuff, the basic regret was we didn’t make enough music together.

For Lost Time, you’ve recorded tunes by Big Joe Turner, Willie Dixon, Leroy Carr—what about some Dave Alvin songs?
My brother has a voice that’s from another time. It has very little to do with most singing over the past 30 or 40 years. His voice hearkens back to the ‘30s, ‘40s, even the ‘50s. By choosing that material, it really shows off his voice. In the Blasters, I didn’t write songs that showcased what my brother’s voice could do enough.

Big Joe Turner was sort of an ad hoc mentor for you and Phil; what kind of effect did he have on you?
When we saw Big Joe Turner for the first time, he was at the tail end of his prime, but still in it. He taught my brother a lot about singing, and there were certain almost Zen-like qualities to things he would say, advice he would give, rules I live by to this day. One was, we would follow him from gig to gig, and some nights he’d be playing, say, a place with 300, 400 people, and then two nights later he’d be playing in front of 30 or less. As a kid, I didn’t understand that, so I asked him, “What’s that like?” I was all of 14. And he said, “Well, sometimes there’s people, and sometimes there ain't.” Certain parts of my career, that’s gotten me through.

One day I wrote a song for Big Joe Turner in my head, right down to the horn parts, I heard it all. So the next time I saw him, I told him, “I wrote a song for you, Big Joe.” And he said “Let me hear it.” And I just stood there with my brain completely blank, and he said, “Well, if you can’t remember it, it ain’t no good to begin with.” And the way that’s manifested itself over the years is that I’m not one of the songwriters who sits there with a tape machine. It’s made me more of a, “Well, if I can’t remember it in two or three days, it’s no good to begin with.”

You also cut a Willie Dixon tune. You had some personal history with him, too.
We did a few gigs together where we backed him up with The Blasters, and I did a few gigs playing guitar with him. We tried to write a little bit. I always liked “Sit Down Baby,” and one of the days I was hanging around his house, we were trying to write, and I mentioned that song. He told me “There’s a verse that’s on my version of the song that’s not on the [originally recorded] Otis Rush version.” Willie thought the verse might be too controversial for that time and place; there’s a verse on there about Rosa Parks. So I thought we should cut “Sit Down Baby” [on Lost Time] and finally put that verse out there.

What’s it like for you and Phil being onstage together again these days?
Our parents are gone, all of the “adults” are gone that we grew up with, and a lot of our friends are gone, people that we’ve hung out with over the decades. When we’re onstage together, they’re all alive again. Big Joe Turner’s alive again when my brother sings his songs. In my brain, I’m going back to those clubs where we followed him around. I can look over at my brother and I see my mom. My brother is not as beautiful as our mom was, but I can see her in him. That makes me happy. It makes up for the truckstops and the security lines at airports and the crappy food. I can be a dour guy at times. I look over at my brother when we’re playing, and I’m not that dour.

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