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National treasure: Dave Alvin with Guilty Ones


IN TUNE: Just when you think Dave Alvin can’t possibly top himself, he gathers another crackerjack band and mounts another knockout show like he did Thursday night at City Winery.

Dave Alvin & Guilty Ones at City Winery (All photos by CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM. No re-use without hyperlink)

Although a huge chunk of the material was familiar, Alvin unveiled some songs from his new CD, “Eleven Eleven”

“A double album — I have lived long enough to see the return of vinyl,” he boasted. “Maybe I’ll live long enough to see 78s.”

Alvin was boosted by a stripped-down backing trio of “Guilty Ones” whose steady support included the crisp, muscular backbeat of Lisa Pankratz, whom he called the best drummer he’s ever played with. No argument here.

The opening act, Los Straitjackets, was entertaining, as always, spicing their straight-ahead surf rock with a full instrumental version of “You Send Me,” the theme from “The Munsters,” and a number that included nods to, among others, “Moon River, Girl From Ipanema,” “Take Five” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” in one extended mashup.

Alvin flew out of the box with “Fourth of July,” which belongs in the canon of truly classic Americana, then followed with the new “Harlan County Line,” which he contributed to the television show “Justified” and appears on the new record — his eleventh album, BTW.

It was difficult to imagine “Boss of the Blues” without a slide guitar or fiddle, but the quartet transformed the ode to the great blues shouter Big Joe Turner into lively jump blues, before easing into “The Black Rose of Texas,
an aching ballad Alvin wrote for onetime Guilty Woman — and late violinist — Amy Farris.

Alvin assembled the Guilty Women after his best friend and sidekick Chris Gaffney, onetime member of the Guilty Men, died of cancer.

So when this man sings of loss, it’s from the heart. And when he paints his portraits of lovers and losers, sinners and saints, he’s riding alongside names like Bukowski, Chandler and Steinbeck.

Alvin kept the downtown crowd buzzing with “Abilene,” which justifiably should have been his breakout hit, before unveiling another song from his new album, about the late, great Johnny Ace (Want to hear a wild story? Google that guy).

For longtime fans who remember the Blasters literally pushing their van the last two blocks to the Mudd Club three decades ago, the new numbers were a treat, mixed ideally with a retrospective that spanned decades — including a letter-perfect rendering of “King of California,” yet another in a catalog that could hold its own against anything by Hank, Woody, or Bob.

Tickets are still available for tonight’s Dave Alvin & the Guilty Ones show at City Winery, with Los Straitjackets. Take it on faith: Do yourself a favor and come see, come listen, come have your faith renewed. He really is that good. To pick your own seat, CLICK HERE )

Alvin first made his mark in the early 80s as co-founder of the Blasters. The neo-rockabilly band from Downey, Calif., which continues to tour with his brother, Phil, in charge, has gone through guitarists like diapers since Dave left the band decades ago.

Dave, meanwhile, has grown as a guitarist, singer and storyteller — one of the most talented and engaging this country has ever seen.

Although not as charismatic or popular as Springsteen (or, as he himself pointed out, Michael Stipe), Alvin is much more adept at profiling a real-life America populated by hard-luck men and heartbroken women, working stiffs and drifters, all sharing the same broken dreams while holding fast to faith.

If you’ve ever crapped out riding a hard eight — either literally or figuratively — this guy’s telling your story.

Alvin’s more recent “Out of Control” throbbed with intensity Thursday night, while one of his most majestic creations, “Dry River,” soared and swooped, capped by a spellbinding drum solo by Pankratz.

Ostensibly a song about what was the San Gabriel, the take is told by a dreamer who straddles a “river” of parched concrete — a metaphor for his barren heart — and vows:

Someday it’s gonna rain,
Someday it’s gonna pour,
Someday that old dry river
Won’t be dry anymore.

Like the great blues singers he idolizes, Alvin brings a trunkload of memories to his performances.

When he sings of the “Ashgrove,” a club he first visited at 13, and ruminates on how this is the only life he’s ever known or wanted, you can relate — although the old California joint had “one or two more knives and a few more murder ballads,” than the Varick Street winery, he said, respectfully.

Alvin then spoke of his older brother, a unique man with an IQ off the charts and a slightly different view of music than Dave.

“Wherever you are tonight, Phil, or whatever you’re griping about,” Alvin said, “this is for you….”

He then launched into a breakneck version of  “Marie Marie,” adding a bit of the oldtime spread-legged stance, introducing the band, and even dropping a little “When the Saints Go Marching In” lick for good measure.

Alvin dedicated a song to Gaffney off the new record to open the encore set — “Run Conejo Run,” which snapped to a Bo Diddley beat (think the Stones‘ “Mona,” Springsteen’s “She’s the One,” or … well … “Bo Diddley”). He followed with Tom Russell’s shimmering “Blue Wing,” before it was time to close with a hip-shaking, Stones-styled “Long White Cadillac.”

Los Staitjackets

Time and again, Dave Alvin has reinvented these very same songs, whether it’s been while playing solo, acoustically with a sideman, or with either the pile-driving Guilty Men
(guitarist Chris “All Killer and No Filler” Miller is with him again) or the incredibly versatile Guilty Women.

Like the man himself, the work never gets tired or old. In fact, it’s become richer than ever. It has somehow escaped the attention of the vox populi, despite a Grammy award and several nominations, but no matter: Dave Alvin is a national treasure.

Sooner or later, the culture will catch up to him.

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