Angels’ wings are carrying a heavy-hearted Dave Alvin through what may become the most beautiful work of his career.
During most of his years as a frontman, Alvin was backed by the Guilty Men, who could be as muscular as their leader’s first band, the Blasters, or lay down a blanket of blues, honky-tonk, folk or rock-and-roll.
Last year, Alvin lost one of them — his best friend, Chris Gaffney, who died of liver cancer.
A superb musician and singer, Gaffney truly was Dave’s sidekick: The two even joked about making a movie, “The Road to Pueblo,” about a Southwest town they vowed to someday buy.
As Alvin wistfully recalled the tale during his Fat Tuesday gig at the City Winery, he was flanked by a pair of talented artists themselves.
Guitar virtuoso Cindy Cashdollar and vocalist Christy McWilson are members of the Guilty Women, an outfit Alvin assembled after Gaffney died in April 2008.
Each time he comes to town, Alvin seems to be short yet another good friend. It stretches back to the death of Lee “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee” Allen, who played sax with the Blasters, and continued, sadly, with last year’s loss of one of the Guilty Women, redheaded violinist Amy Farris.
On this night, at an impressive club outside the Holland Tunnel that Alvin said reminds him of the Bottom Line, the trio’s first stop on an East Coast mini-tour was too exquisite to end.
Yes, the barroom bluesman kicked it a couple of times — with his own “Marie Marie” and “Haley’s Comet,” a song Alvin said he wrote with Tom Russell in a midtown hotel room. He also reminded everyone of his roots with a hard-as-nails “Long White Cadillac” as his opener.
But, as this brilliant man himself will tell you, he plays two kinds of folk music — loud and quiet. Before a crowd that called out requests between songs but remained still during them, Alvin and his angels pulled a magical bow across the heartstrings with cello-like mournfulness.
McWilson’s pipes harken to a young June Carter just after she stepped into the ring of fire, with a range that begins at whiskey smooth but can reach the peak of a soaring yodel, as she did on her own “The Weight of The World.”
On Dave’s right was the otherwordly Cashdollar, who can coax cries of longing and loss from her laptop dobro, among other instruments.
At one point, during what should have been Alvin’s big seller, “Abilene,” their respective picking danced, at first quietly but then slowly rising to a joyful crescendo. It segued right into the next number, “Ashgrove,” an ode to the California mecca where Dave and his brother, Phil, first saw the likes of Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Turner, great bluesmen who inspired them to make music their livelihoods.
Rock and rollers rarely age well, as the world’s largest TV audience witnessed at halftime of this year’s Super Bowl. But bluesmen like Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton — and, yes, Dave Alvin — can ply their trade as long as they’re able. They are the leather jackets: The more wrinkles, the wider the range grows, the deeper and richer the well.
Alvin has matured the past three decades from a Ramones-esque cruncher — legs split, jack-hammering his way through tunes — to a masterful balladeer. But as fortunate as American culture is to have him, the man is equally blessed to have McWilson and Cashdollar at his sides, as he begins a new year of touring with various combos.
Their transcendent moment came on “Potter’s Field,” from “The Guilty Women” CD. Alvin ordinarily plays it for Gaffney, but tonight he dedicated it to Farris, after a fan at a back table called her name (“You touched a tender subject,” Dave said into the darkness).
As they sang, McWilson drew nearer to him. At times he turned to her with the kind of vulnerability I’ve never seen through 30 years of following him. As the song ended, he closed his eyes, while she dabbed hers with a napkin.
The pair followed with what Alvin said was the imaginary theme song for his and Gaffney’s Hope/Crosby film — “Two Lucky Bums,” available only at davealvin.net. Jaunty, with an old music-hall skip, it’s a perfect duet, long one of Alvin’s strengths.
At the end, he looked skyward and tipped his black hat.
As if that weren’t enough, someone called for one of the most inspiring songs Alvin’s ever recorded, “Blue Wing,” written by Russell.
“Well, it’s dark in here / Can’t see the sky / But I look at this blue wing and I close my eyes / And I fly away / Beyond these walls / Up above the clouds / Where the rain don’t fall / On a poor man’s dream.”
The gals boosted the classic “Fourth of July,” and the smiling frontman sang it as if for the first time. They then dove into the metaphoric “Dry River,” drawn from the dried-up waterway that once ran through Alvin’s Downey, CA hometown.
It’s a song of hope, not only that the skies will open and the mighty river will return, but that another type of hole will be filled: “Someday it’s gonna rain / Someday it’s gonna pour / Someday this old heart of mine will fall in love once more….”
It was odd to hear McWilson teaming with Alvin for the first encore, the George Jones stomper “What Am I Worth,” especially considering that Syd Straw played the same stage a few nights earlier (She handles the tune’s vocals on Alvin’s “King of California” album). McWilson proved more than worthy, though.
The yin to his yang, she and Cashdollar aren’t mere backups for The Dave Alvin Show. Together, the trio crafted a quilt of inspiring beauty. And although there were a few false starts, Alvin promised they’d work out all the kinks by the time they reached the end of the road trip in Birmingham, Ala.
Ordinarily, an outfit would begin in a town like Birmingham and work its way to the Big City. But Alvin is flying on angels’ wings — of those who’ve gone before and the beautiful bandmates supporting him now.
“There’ll be no holes in our game when we get to Birmingham,” he promised.
It’s OK, my friend. Right now, holes are being filled elsewhere.