Re-formed Blasters delve into band's roots
November 6, 2002
BY MARY HOULIHAN STAFF REPORTER
The Blasters will go down in history as one of the major forces behind the
reawakening of interest in American roots music. But the group's six-year
run was cut short in 1985, when brothers Dave and Phil Alvin had a
falling-out and the original lineup split up. Dave went on to an
illustrious career as a singer-songwriter-producer; Phil kept versions of
the Blasters going while also completing a doctorate in mathematics.
But last spring, when Rhino Records released the Blasters' two-disc,
52-track "Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings," one of those "never
say never" moments transpired. To celebrate the reissue, the original
Blasters reunited for five West Coast concerts that triggered ripples of
envy from fans in other parts of the country.
Now the Blasters are sharing the moment by undertaking a minitour to
promote the release of "Trouble Bound" (HighTone), a live disc culled from
the California shows. The group performs tonight and Thursday night at
FitzGerald's in Berwyn, a venue that over the years has become Dave Alvin's
Chicago area home.
Neither of the Alvins were truly interested in getting the original band
back together but at Rhino's behest, they agreed.
"I was a little uneasy the first day of rehearsal, but by the middle of the
first song, it was like no time had passed at all," Dave said in a recent
phone interview. "My trepidations went away quickly. There's still a bond
here among guys who literally grew up together. We know each other's ins
and outs and all of our weaknesses."
"The passing of time also has helped," Phil added. "Musicians get better as
they get older. They become more seasoned, more experienced."
The Blasters--Phil Alvin (vocals), Dave Alvin (guitar), John Bazz (bass),
Bill Bateman (drums) and Gene Taylor (piano)--grew up in the working-class
community of Downey, Calif. Scouring area thrift shops, they bought cheap
vinyl 45s and 78s, thus educating themselves with a collection of musical
sounds ranging from rock and country to R&B and soul. They really hit
paydirt when they discovered that many of the older artists responsible for
these discs played in local clubs.
Both Alvins recall, still with a bit of awe, the thrill of meeting R&B and
blues greats such as Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Reed, Lee Allen and Marcus
Johnson. Allen, the tenor sax player who played on many a New Orleans R&B
hit of the 1940s and '50s, performed with the Blasters during their
"We were lucky to see a lot of our heroes perform while they were alive,"
Dave said. "Some of them actually became close friends, especially Lee. I
have a treasure trove of memories, of watching them and studying them as
they performed. The only drawback was when we went to parties, our friends
would never want us to bring our records. They never understood our taste
Older brother Phil had dabbled in a series of bands. In 1979, he and
Bateman started a country blues band that was the forerunner to the
Blasters; Dave Alvin was the youngster in the group learning the ropes. The
Blasters' debut album, "American Music" (1980), was aptly titled, hinting
at the legacy the band would go on to create. But the concept was nothing
so lofty at the time, Dave insists.
"Our main goal was to have the liberty to give up our day jobs," he said
with a low, rumbling laugh. "Groups like the Blasters and the original
Thunderbirds and guys like Joe Ely all stuck out like a sore thumb back
then. We just weren't playing the music that was happening. What we
eventually did was make the music acceptable on the hipness scale."
At first tagged as a rockabilly band, the Blasters proved to be much more.
A blistering force of nature, the band offered an amalgam of R&B and
original songs by Dave Alvin, some of which are now roots anthems
("American Music," "Marie, Marie").
The group was never just a "brother act," but rather served as a consortium
of talent. The other players are all skilled, with the Alvins claiming that
Taylor "is one of the best boogie-woogie piano players around."
In the early '80s, the brothers' relationship became strained as Dave grew
tired of writing songs for others, while Phil turned to playing more cover
"The basic reason I left was that it wasn't fun for me anymore," Dave said.
"There has to be a passion for the music, but it also had to be fun. The
arguing was a big part of it too. Emotionally, it got pretty intense."
Added Phil, "I've always fought with my brother; that's what brothers do.
But I've always played well with him, too."
When asked to name a favorite cut from the new live album, Dave Alvin
turned to "Cryin' for My Baby," a performance that he said truly
exemplifies what the Blasters are all about.
"That song wasn't planned in the set," he said. "We just decided to play it
and it came out great.
"When I listen to it, I hear what I always thought the Blasters should be:
off the cuff, playing with total abandon, pure rock 'n' roll. There was no
thought in that song, it just happened. And that's what rock 'n' roll is