A Testament to the Blasters

photo by Billy Davis, courtesy of the Blasters newsletter

by Steve Cooper (Sept 2002)

I hate to talk of the Blasters in the past tense, since lead singer Phil Alvin still has them on the road (if not in the studio). The fact is, alas, since lead guitarist and songwriter Dave Alvin left the band in 1986, the various Blaster line-ups have had an incredible string of dumb, bad luck, including a fatal drug overdose, a fatal heart attack, record company foldings, key members leaving and/or being fired, promises given-promises broken, et cetera, et cetera, et-damn-cetera. Leader Phil even left for a time to teach mathematics at a California college. The present-day Blasters still absolutely kill live and are probably well beyond being sick of the question "When are you guys gonna record again?" But, let us digress...

As mere tykes in the orange grove/factory town of Downey, California (home of "the world's oldest McDonald's"), brothers Phil and Dave Alvin learned the root of so-called "roots music" from their excursions into L. A., to venues like Ash Grove and the Shrine Auditorium, to drink in live performances by blues and R&B legends Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Buddy Guy, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. The brothers started forming bands and perfecting their chops, Dave on guitar and Phil on vocals. In 1970, older brother Phil had a chance meeting with a blues player named Ernie Franklin in a music store. Franklin's mother was a good friend of T-Bone Walker and also dated New Orleans sax legend Lee "Mr. Lee" Allen (then living in L. A.). Soon, the young Alvin brothers had developed a friendship and tutelage not only with T-Bone Walker and Lee Allen, but also with blues legend, and friend of Lee Allen, Big Joe "Shake, Rattle, & Roll" Turner. Pretty heady stuff for two upstart teenagers from Downey.

After going in and out of various bands, the brothers Alvin finally settled on a line-up of Phil on vocals and rhythm guitar, Dave on lead guitar, John Bazz on bass, and Bill Bateman on drums, calling themselves "The Blasters." When they started playing L. A. clubs in the late 1970's, the scene there was about to go ballistic with such contemporaries as Los Lobos, X, and the L. A. Guns. The Blasters, though quite popular in the club scene, were hard to categorize. Bassist Bazz explains: "The whole music scene was starting to explode in '79. With Phil and Dave in the band, we were able to mix and match so many different and varied styles of music that we weren't really a blues band or a rockabilly band, but we were a lot of things." And, all of those "things" were done with the style and the convincing precision of performers with much more mileage than the young Blasters. The Blasters were rockabilly, to be sure, but with huge measures of blues, R&B and country, with a special kicker, Dave Alvin's considerable songwriting talents. Phil's high, crooning, rockabilly/country lead voice was ever strong, ever full-throated, and always dead-on. In short, these guys were for real. These guys were contenders.

I'll continue the history lesson, Blasters 101, as I review this excellent two-disc Blaster compilation on Rhino Records, Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings. Disc One contains, among many others, several cuts that first appeared on the Blasters first album in 1980, American Music, on the tiny Rollin' Rock rockabilly record label (re-released on HighTone Records in 1997). Many of the cuts, among them "Marie, Marie," "American Music," "Barefoot Rock," and "Flat Top Joint" appeared on later, major label Blasters releases, but more about that shortly.

After their L. A. club success, the Blasters suddenly, in an extremely odd pairing, found themselves on tour opening for glam-rockers Queen. But, give it to Queen, they were Blasters fans and, though the Blasters were booed at first by the Queen-sters, they soon were sharing the marquee and rocking the arenas. This exposure allowed the Blasters to approach major record labels with their wares. Warner Brothers/Slash, Los Lobos' first label, was receptive and in 1981, there it was, The Blasters, on Slash Records, but with a difference. The difference was the addition of three new members: veteren pianist Gene Taylor, Steve Berlin (now with Los Lobos) on baritone saxophone, and another horn man, mentor/friend/legend Lee Allen on tenor saxophone.

The difference in the Blasters sound from their first, small-label release and their first big-label disc is dramatic. With Gene Taylor providing '40's- and '50's-style piano runs, and Berlin and Allen wailing on saxes, the Blasters were truly blasting. Check out a cut like "This Is It," on Disc One of the compilation here and also on their initial, self-titled album--it's a rolling, rockabilly romp with Phil nailing the vocals, Dave providing his usual Chuck-Berry-by-way-of-Lonnie-Mack guitar stylings, and Gene Taylor taking a smoking piano solo midway through. The song could easily have been recorded in 1955 on Sun Records, but it was written by Dave, and it is informed by Sun, but not limited to Sun. It's rockabilly, it's blues, it's r&b, it's Blasters music, or, as the Blasters called it, "American Music."

Two rockers off that first Slash album are rock and roll wonders that deserve to be in a hall of fame somewhere. "Marie, Marie" and "So Long Baby Goodbye" feel as if they have existed since the salad days of Bill Haley, but, again, they are more. "Marie, Marie," for instance, is a rocker with a Cajun feel. John Bazz drives the song on bass and Dave does a dead-on Berry guitar solo. Phil, as ever, astounds on lead vocals. "So Long Baby Goodbye" features a cool harmonica riff by Phil and a wailing sax solo by Lee Allen about three quarters of the way through that propels the song over the top into the stratosphere. And, did I mention that Dave's lyrics are pure, uncorrupted poetry: "None of us are gonna cry/It isn't even worth the try/So long, baby, goodbye."

The Blasters extraordinary, classic third album, Non-Fiction, from 1983, is also fully represented on Testament's Disc One. Two highlights are stone killer Dave Alvin compositions, "Jubilee Train" and "Long White Cadillac." "Jubilee Train" is gospel rockabilly. That's right, I said "gospel rockabilly." "Get on board/There's a new train comin'/Heard about the Jubilee Train/Heard about the Jubilee Train." Like I said, with the Blasters, there's always roots chops, but there's always something more. "Long, White Cadillac," a minor hit for country star Dwight Yoakam, is another driving, apocalyptic rocker from Dave's pen. "Night wolves moan/The winter hills are black/I'm all alone/Sitting in the back/Of a long white Cadillac." Imagine a Sun Records-era Charlie Rich singing Bob Dylan lyrics and you get a sense of the song. It's that "more" thing again.

There are at least seven or eight additional Dave Alvin compositions from the Non-Fiction album included here that are, for wont of a more restrained term, incredible, including "Red Rose," "It Must Be Love," "Fool's Paradise," "Leaving," and "Boomtown." But, lest I give the impression that the Blasters only did Dave Alvin-penned tunes, allow me to holler about the Blasters take of the Don "Sugarcane" Harris' oldie "Justine." Until I heard the Blasters do it, I never thought anyone would top the Righteous Brother's version on their first record label, Moonglow Records. Phil kicks it off screaming "Jus-tiiine!!!" and then Gene Taylor's piano launches the song from zero to sixty in one second, with John Bazz motoring like a man possessed on bass. Phil's shouting vocal is an aural wonder and Lee Allen, master saxman he always was, bumps the song even one notch higher.

Disc Two opens with the entire third, and last, Blaster album Hard Line from 1985. The first song, "Trouble Bound," was prophetic. By this time, siblings Phil and Dave were arguing constantly about the band's direction. Dave wanted to trend in a more singer/songwriter direction and Phil figured if it ain't broke don't fix it. The trouble was that Dave Alvin's talent was a solo career waiting to happen. After a poor show in Montreal in November of 1985, Dave Alvin and pianist Gene Taylor announced they were leaving the band. Gene Taylor immediately got on board with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Dave flew to New York and joined some of his L. A. friends in a Knitters gig. The Knitters was a side project of the group X and included three members of X and Jonny Bartel on bass. At the gig, X leadman John Doe told Dave X guitarist Billy Zoom was leaving and offered the newly-unattached Dave the job in X. Dave sort of accepted, but gave the Blasters one more try in early 1986. The friction was even greater between the brothers because Phil felt betrayed, so, in April of 1986, Dave left the Blasters for good and joined X. His eye and heart were really set on a solo career, however.

The last Blasters album, Hard Line, despite all the turmoil surrounding it, still sounds like a fully cohesive band still coming into their glory days. Though not the ultimate statement Non-Fiction is, it boasts several solid Dave Alvin compositions, including "Trouble Bound," "Dark Night," "Little Honey," and "Common Man." "Dark Night," a tale of interracial love coming to a bad end in an imperfect world, is especially haunting: "He held her so close/He asked about her dreams/There was a shot from a passing car/And the young girl screamed." Phil does his usual ace job on the vocals but it was becoming obvious that such songs were reaching an intimacy that only their writer could convey completely.

The "bonus" cuts on Disc Two are actually from a live album that saw limited release in 1982. Over There: Live At the Venue, London came out and went away without much fanfare. Too bad because it captures the Blasters line-up at their rocking best, especially on covers such as Jerry Lee Lewis' "High School Confidential," Roy Orbison's "Go, Go, Go," James Moore's oft-covered "Got Love If You Want It," and bandmember Lee Allen's hit from the 1950s "Walkin' With Mr. Lee." Their version of Big Joe Turner's signature song "Roll 'Em Pete" is particularly choice. Gene Taylor rocks the boogie woogie like the song's author Pete Johnson, and Phil subtly changes his phrasing a touch to pay homage to mentor Big Joe Turner. Lee Allen and Steve Berlin trade sax solos while drummer Bill Bateman bashes away on the cymbals. Transcendental, man, transcendental.

And, then, that was it. Three studio albums (four counting the Rollin' Rock release), one live album, and no more Blasters on record. Dave Alvin went quickly into a successful solo career, consistently topping the Americana charts. Dave's deep, anguished singing voice is in a different world from brother Phil's and his reworkings of some of his earlier Blaster compositions such as "Little Honey" and "Border Radio" are different beasts altogether, every bit as effective in their way and Phil was in his way. Last year, Dave received a Grammy for his album of traditional songs Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land.

Sad to say, sax legend and band member Lee Allen passed away in 1994. Phil has released two solo albums to not much acclaim and has gone through several Blasters line-up changes. He is keeping the faith and, at this writing, there is talk of some Blaster dates, with Dave returning to the fold temporarily. (Note: This occurred this spring, with the Blasters original line-up playing limited shows to small-but-enthusiastic audiences.) What the Blasters had, however, was lightning in a bottle, even if their light didn't shine forth on popular radio. No less than Bob Dylan once said to Dave Alvin: "Dave, when are you and Phil getting back together? Man, that stuff was magic!" That it was.

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