It's the Greatest Sound, Right from the USA
It starts with the audience, the way it always did with the Blasters; they can still be caught live every once in a while, with singer Phil Alvin—the funkiest math Ph.D. in the world—howling away like mad. But then you hear it: the tell-tale grumble of Dave Alvin’s guitar. You breathe a huge sigh of relief when you hear that, and when you hear, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We’re the Blasters . . . or . . . some incarnation thereof.” A one-second pause, and they’re off into “Red Rose”. And you won’t breathe for the next 67 minutes. . . .
Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, especially since it says “The Original Blasters” on the back of the disc case. But it’s kind of a big deal anyway; the Blasters were America’s best live band for a number of years, punching out rockabilly, R&B, boogie and soul music with way too much intensity to ever really be too popular, and then self-destructing. What brought the Blasters low? Oh, the same old shit: pressure, money, ambition, being unfashionable, and sibling rivalry. Dave now tours as a solo act, as he’s done for 15 years, and Phil is fronting the Blasters, with Smokey Hormel on guitar when they hit the road.
But this LP reveals the real deal, both Alvins together with their original bass player John Bazz (who has worked with Phil since freakin’ 1970), drummer Bill Bateman, and piano player Gene Taylor. These songs were recorded earlier this year at the House of Blues in Los Angeles to celebrate the release of their two-disc all-of called Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings. The Blasters don’t do clever stage patter, they don’t pull up any “special guests,” they aren’t peddling any novelty “brand-new” songs. All they do is play great songs with energy and passion and a love for music that’s even thicker than blood.
If you’re a Blasters fan, you’ll want this immediately. Sure, you might already have all the bootleg MP3s already, or you might have been there at the shows, or you might have caught them “in their prime” and be worried that Trouble Bound doesn’t do them justice. Well, worry no longer: they sound like rock and roll on a stick, with sprinkles. None of them seem to have lost a step or even a half-step as they whip through all their most popular songs in high style. You want “American Music” and “Marie Marie” and “So Long Baby Goodbye” and “Help You Dream”? They’re all here, fans, and they sound wonderful.
In fact, it’s a little creepy how similar some of these versions sound to the originals, which were recorded two decades ago. Compare the 2002 version of “Common Man” to the original (on 1985’s unfairly ignored Hard Line) and you’ll be amazed at how they’ve made it sound even tougher, slamming away at this savage composite portrait of politicians who pretend to be down with the people while selling them out (“He wasn’t born in a cabin / He never fought in a war / But he learned to smile, and quote Abe Lincoln / And to get his foot in the door”). The opening riff (swiped boldly from CCR, who had themselves swiped it) is somewhat toned down, so that Dave Alvin can save the pyrotechnics for his solo, which is just about as raw and rawk and angry as one could ever wish. This song is about as close as the record sounds to Dave Alvin’s solo work: loud, stretched-out, furious.
It’s the only one, though. The next selection is “Hollywood Bed,” which dates from their self-titled debut from 1981, and damned if this version doesn’t sound like it could have been taped back then: Taylor’s rolling honky-tonk piano lines and Bateman’s New Orleans second-line drumming are still spot-on, and Phil Alvin’s voice is still just as suggestive as it was back when he had hair. (That sounds like a cheap shot, but it’s not meant to be. Mine’s going too.) Long-time barn-burning favorite “So Long Baby Goodbye” is even faster than it was on wax, and Phil’s harmonica solo might seem a little tentative at first, but he catches fire about the time he and the band lock into the melody from “When the Saints Go Marching In” and then it’s katy bar the door. And even “American Music” hits harder than ever, with some wild roadhouse piano breaks by Taylor and Dave’s completely insane guitar solo.
Many of the songs are recast in new skin. “Trouble Bound”, devoid of the Jordanaires’ vocal work, has turned into more of a rocker than it ever was back in the days. Lieber and Stoller’s “One Bad Stud”, which was a lively jump-blues on the Streets of Fire soundtrack (and during their appearance in that weird messed-up movie), is now a punk-rockabilly sprint, way too fast to make any sense and absolutely exhilarating. Devoid of their saxophone section (Lee Allen died in 1994, and Steve Berlin having left for Los Lobos long ago), the Blasters are leaner and harder than they used to be, which I figure kind of suits where they are now in their lives.
But this is still a set full of soul. “Cryin’ for My Baby” is a lengthy blues lope with ace harmonica work by Phil; Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” goes a million miles on bad attitude and Bateman’s tribal drumbeat; and old favorite “I’m Shakin’” is dedicated to James Brown but comes off more like Jackie Wilson in his prime. And when they do a shout-out to “the wild man of Memphis, Sonny Burgess,” by covering “Sadie’s Back in Town,” they take it just as dementedly fast as they possibly can, sounding tougher than your crazy uncle and bursting through about twelve different genres in two minutes and a few seconds.
This is the second amazing live album of 2002 in which Dave Alvin has been involved; his solo Live in California dropped just a few months ago, and now this. Maybe this means he’s back to re-claim his beloved American music from all the pitch-adjusted horror that is today’s music, or maybe it’s just coincidence. Either way, it’s hard to hear his solo on “Dark Night” and not believe that he’s on a mission. And it’s great to see him together with his brother again . . . and not just because Phil is a better singer than he is. Together, these two brothers made some damned fine music with deep roots and the kind of ecstatic glee that all beautiful music should be made of. Here’s hoping they can keep their psychological issues to a minimum and do a new record together. We need ‘em back.
// Notes from the Road
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