Dave Alvin - bringing Big Bill centre stage
Dave Alvin remembers very clearly the first time he heard Big Bill Broonzy. The singer and guitarist who would go on to achieve hero status among the Americana audience for his work with tough blues rockers the Blasters in the 1980s, and for a remarkably consistent solo career since 1986, was still in short trousers when his older brother, Phil, brought home an album compiled from Broonzy 78s, Big Bill’s Blues.
Both brothers were entranced. They may have developed a reputation over the years with the Blasters for showing the antithesis of brotherly love but they were certainly agreed on Broonzy’s greatness.
“I would have been about eleven and Phil about thirteen and we had these older cousins who were big fans of various styles of music,” says Alvin. “So at a pretty early age we’d been exposed to the more popular blues artists like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Big Bill, however, was the first pre-World War ll bluesman we discovered – and he became a constant guide. Phil started singing along to a couple of the songs on that album pretty much straight away and they’d be among the first songs we sang and played together.”
Almost fifty years on, the brothers had good reasons for going into the recording studio and laying down what would become Common Ground, the first album they’ve made together since the Blasters’ Hard Line in 1985. Firstly, they’d never made a record for their younger selves, the early teenage blues collectors. Secondly, Alvin considered Big Bill Broonzy to be due some re-evaluation among blues aficionados and a possible introduction to a new audience. And thirdly, the incident in Spain in 2012 when Phil “died” and was brought back to life added some urgency to their need to make a record together.
“When I was writing my Eleven Eleven album about seven, eight years ago, I wrote a song that I thought Phil could sing and it felt like time for us to do something together again,” says Alvin. “Plus we worked on the musical Stephen King and John Mellencamp put together with T.Bone Burnett, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which was interesting. Then Phil got ill twice and after the second time I thought, we really need to do this.”
A collection of Broonzy songs felt right because these were literally common ground and for Alvin, Broonzy needs to be recognised as the equal of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and the Carter Family in the American folk music pantheon.
“The problem with Big Bill, in a way, is that he enjoyed a thirty-year career and for a blues legend that’s a long time,” he says. “Some blues greats appeared in the 1930s, made one or maybe two 78 recordings, got killed or just disappeared again, and they’re valued because they’re obscure. Someone like Big Bill or Lonnie Johnson survives through the decades and comes through different styles of blues and doesn’t get the same recognition. So part of the desire to make Common Ground was to show the different styles of Big Bill’s songwriting. You know, Key to the Highway’s kinda downhome but Tomorrow is much more sophisticated, almost a swing song, and the roots of rock ‘n’ roll are in his work too.”
Recording was a breeze. The brothers are, as Dave says, “not so argumentative these days” and they were quickly able to find songs that suited Phil. Less easy was finding songs that Dave could make “sound like me” but over two sessions, with the musicians playing together in a circle, facing each other as has been his modus operandi throughout his solo career, everything went smoothly. Smooth to the point of scary, Dave adds.
“I wish I could tell you a story, throw in some gun play or a bank robbery or something,” he says. “But it wasn’t like the Blasters who because we all grew up together in the same town [Downey, California, home also to the Carpenters, Richard and Karen], we knew which buttons to press. And boy, did we press them. That actually was a good thing. It was bad in that it limited what we could do and how far we could take it. But it was good in that there was a sixth sense between us. We knew when someone in the band was going to do something before they did it. There were certain tensions but that aggression and sense of release worked in our favour. It made for energetic shows.”
The Alvins are now back on the road together, playing songs from Common Ground and more, and they’re having a ball.
“There haven’t been any fights,” says Dave, who turns sixty next year. “But you know, there’s something about having your brother die and be brought back to life that changes your perspective: I wouldn’t want to hit him now in case I killed him!”
From The Herald, October 23, 2014.