We’re gonna play this evening ‘til we draw a crowd.
OK, so I’ve got this music theory, and the Blasters are a big part of it: The purest distillation of a given genre is a song that is (or contains) the name of the genre itself. Think about it. Is there a better encapsulation of rock music than Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”? I submit there is not. Or a “purer” rap song than the Sugarhill Gang’s opening salvo, “Rapper’s Delight”? Discuss amongst yourselves. And here’s where the Blasters come in: Their “American Music” is the best statement about American music, Americana, whatever you want to call it. And while it was recorded 24 years ago for the band’s 1980 debut, American Music (natch), it sounds every bit as vital and true now as it did back then.
The occasion for putting forth this pet theory is, of course, the release of Live: Going Home, a CD/DVD chronicle of the original Blasters line-up farewell show, recorded August 13, 2003, at the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Clara, California, near the band’s home in Downey, California. Only a few years ago, the band—guitarist Dave Alvin, singer/guitarist Phil Alvin, drummer Bill Bateman, bassist John Bazz, and keyboardist Gene Taylor—seemed destined to be a footnote in musical history, half-remembered only by guys who read No Depression (guilty, as charged), or for Dave Alvin’s work with late-period X and that band’s side project, the Knitters.
But credit Rhino Records for their lovingly-crafted 2002 Blasters retrospective, Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings, and for bringing attention to an underrated, truly amazing American band. (If you consider yourself any kind of alt-country fan and you do not own either the impossible-to-find original albums or Testament, you are living an incomplete existence. Buy them now; this review will still be here when you get back. Go on.)
As essential as Testament is, it’s not a proper send-off for a band as important as the Blasters. Live: Going Home offers listeners a rare chance to hear the band—in a live environment, no less—synthesize blues, rock, swing, country, and rockabilly in a way that no other band before or since has done. The original line-up has played only a handful of dates together since the mid-‘80s (the 2002 live album, Trouble Bound captured the band’s first tour together since November, 1985), but you’d never guess the band ever spent a minute apart. From the opening strains of “Marie, Marie”, Phil’s voice hasn’t aged a day, and Dave’s guitar still rings out true on fan favorites like “Border Radio” and “No Other Girl”.
On “American Music”, Phil sings “We got the Louisiana boogie and the Delta Blues / Country, swing and rockabilly too / We got jazz, country-western and Chicago blues / It’s the greatest music that you ever knew / Well it’s American music ... / It’s the greatest sound right from the USA”, and true to those words, the band effortless glides from a swinging cover of Bill Haley and the Saddlemen’s “Real Rock Drive” to the R&B-tinged “Have Mercy Baby” (featuring some ace back-up singing by surviving members of doo-wop groups the Medallions and the Calvanes) to the slow-cooking blues number, “All Your Love”. The Alvins clearly have one of the cooler record collections on the planet.
There’s a few missteps to be found on Live: Going Home, but even they boast their own silver linings. Gene Taylor’s vocal lead on “Don’t You Lie to Me” proves that Phil was meant to be the lead singer; and “One Bad Stud” runs too long, but even on disc one can hear the band clearly having a, um, blast, jamming out together again; and where’s “Red Rose” and “I’m Shakin’”?
Answer: On the concert DVD, which adds those tracks, plus “Trouble Bound”, “Sadie’s Back in Town” and “I Ain’t Got You”, while omitting some of the CD’s weaker moments (“All Your Love”, “JB Lenoir Jam”). Obsessive fans will also revel in the archival early 1980s footage and interview with the band members and special onstage guests. Taken together, the CD and DVD offer a fitting coda to one of America’s truly great American bands; it’s the final chapter the band deserves.