Photo credit: Stephen Smith
Only in Madison would you find a dive bar with a grilled portabella sandwich on the menu. This is what I’m thinking about as my wife and I began to jockey for position in the music space at the Harmony Bar, a place that pretends to be a little seedy but really just exists to pull in the Near East Side middle-aged blues and zydeco and roots fans. We came early because my wife is short, and we always have to go right up to the front of the stage to see anything. (She’ll never go to a concert with assigned seats again, after the seven-foot-guy-standing-in-front-of-her-at-the-Blackalicious-and-Ben-Harper-show incident of 2000.) We saunter down casually to within about seven feet of the stage when a 6’2″ fellow and his 6’3″ girlfriend shoot past us and plant themselves right in front. What makes people do stupid stuff like that? We have time to look around: mostly 50s-and-bearded for the guys, 40s-and-modestly-appointed for the women. There are some younger people here, college students perhaps with a taste for the blues, and some older people — hey, there’s Rockin’ John! His radio show on WORT is the best thing on the air in Madison, a mix of old rockabilly and R&B, country-boogie and novelty stuff, doo-wop and occasional psychedelia. Love Rockin’ John. It’s a Rockin’ John sort of crowd; they know their shit, and they love Dave Alvin. The concert is supposed to start at 9:45, and it’s not too long after that that a guy named Rick Shea comes out and starts to play his acoustic guitar and sing. He is a member of Dave Alvin’s band, and seems like a really nice man, so we cut him a break, even though his folk songs are less than compelling and he has all the stage charisma of Ed Sullivan. You know that guy in high school who was cute enough but his girlfriends always dumped him for bikers and gang members and energy company CEOs? Rick Shea is that guy. No one is buying his “California Blues” or his hymn to a lost love named “Rachel”. Things get a little more lively when he’s joined by the rhythm section and a piano player, and his song “Wanted Man” isn’t bad — but then they just keep playing, and playing, and playing. What makes people do stupid stuff like that? When they leave, we clap politely, but we’re full of anticipation — how long could it take for them to all come back out, with their leader in tow? Turns out to be a long time. It’s well past 11:00 when they start making their way back up: Shea and accordion player Chris Gaffney first, then drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks and bass player Gregory Boaz and keyboardist Joe Terry, and finally, to a working-class-hero’s ovation, Mr. Dave Alvin. He comes striding through the crowd, takes a giant step up on stage, and gets started tuning as every eye in the place focuses on him. Some are huge cult fans of his solo work; some (like my wife) are bigger fans of Alvin’s first band, the Blasters. But all are there because they’ve heard about Dave Alvin live — many are even familiar with his brand-new CD, Out in California, and are eager to get the Dave Alvin experience live for themselves. But it’s clear that something is a bit off tonight. A few band members are having sound troubles, and there’s some kind of mixup over the first number. At this point, the tall couple has left, and we’re virtually right up on the stage with the band, but it’s still hard to figure out whether or not Alvin is kidding when he mutters, “Well, we were gonna start with a different song, but it’s clear the band doesn’t wanna play it yet, so we’re gonna do this one.” And from there he whips into the intro to “New Highway”, a muscled-up blues rocker that truly justifies everything. Dave Alvin lives for the road, and his face really comes alive only when he’s playing — otherwise, he could be your balding accountant uncle with a soul patch, no chin, and a lean wiry body. And, tonight, a bad attitude. The band has been together for a few years now, and they know how to settle into a locktight groove. “Highway 99” sounds pretty much the same as it does on Out in California, but the song is spoiled somewhat by the appearance of a skanky-looking woman in a hideous orange dress who linebackers her way right in front of us so she can do freaky hippie dances in front of the band, worshipping them with Stevie Nicks-style hand motions and generally grandstanding. We make a mental note: she will not get past us again. Later, when she tries, my neighbor, Beefy Cigarette-Smoking Guy, pull an NBA-worthy screen on her bony self and cause her to retreat to wherever else in the bar she’s been skanking around in. What makes people do stupid stuff like that? Alvin switches to acoustic guitar for the standard “Ride Ride Ride” which seems unchanged from its appearance on Public Domain. He even nails the intro to “Blue Boulevard”, which is virtually word-for-word the same as on the live album I just listened to a few hours before. But when Alvin breaks a string towards the end of the song, he takes it as a sign: “They say that when you break a string, you have to play louder,” he chuckles darkly, reaching for an electric guitar that’s seen its share of the road. We’re in for it now, but we just don’t know it. What follows next is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen live. The band launches into the song “Out in California”, and this too starts out just like it does on record: soft/hard dynamics, enigmatic bluesy vocal delivery, insistent drum patterns and just a touch of boogie-woogie piano. But when it comes time for the solo, Dave Alvin suddenly turns into Jimi Fuckin’ Hendrix, blasting out some evil voodoo that crashes up on itself like big loud surf waves. He’s possessed by something tonight — he keeps taking chorus after chorus, bending notes so hard they break, slashing his fingers across the strings, contorting his face to get maximum cooperation out of the feedback. Our ears are stinging when the song finally comes to an end many minutes later but Dave Alvin looks unsatisfied. He mumbles a few words before launching into “Haley’s Comet”, a seemingly gentler number about the death of Bill Haley of “Rock Around the Clock” fame. But again, Alvin can’t help himself; he swings his guitar around to try to get the band to play softer, and yells at them when they don’t listen. And then, when they’re quieter, he beats the holy shit out of his guitar. I really thought things were going to come to blows between Alvin and Hicks during the 20-minute medley of “Little Honey” and “Who Do You Love”. This seemed so natural and organic on the live record, but here it’s a caged-in death match: thunderclaps of buzz feed on splintered solo shrieks. My notes read, “Someone didn’t get his catharsis this morning.” I have no idea what I meant by that. But Alvin looks mad and mean and scary tonight, and he’s making us all a little nervous. This is the way the evening goes from there. One song is introduced as “my attempt to write a Magic Sam song with lyrics by Jean Genet,” but Alvin gets no response to that, so he plays a solo that would give the Devil a headache. During another number, Alvin just completely loses his temper, and starts yelling “Fuck this shit!” while he’s abusing his guitar. He steps forward and shuts everyone up except for the drummer, and calls to the sound guy, “You know, I can’t hear myself at all. If you could turn up the levels on my vocal monitor so I can hear myself sing, I’d probably be a lot happier. I might even smile.” He’s dead serious. Then, while he’s doing the mike check, Chris Gaffney gets us all to join in: “One! Two! One! Two!” This seems to break some of the tension, as does Alvin’s pinched and gracious comment when it turns out he still can’t hear himself sing, “Oh, well, thanks for trying.” From there on out, things are a lot happier. “Okay, guys, I guess it’s time,” he growls, grinning, before whipping them all into an extremely long version of “Fourth of July”. This gets a huge reaction, as you might expect, considering by now we’re all well into the actual Fourth of July. Even Orange-Dress Woman comes back up front — this time, we just let her do her thing and wait for her to leave, which she does soon enough. Alvin, who is positively beaming by now, calls up his buddy Frank, a Madison local and an old friend of his. “This is the guy who convinced my brother Phil and I to start the Blasters.” Frank smiles and whips out a harmonica, which he then proceeds to play the absolute shit out of for two funky lengthy numbers, including one featuring the nice vocals of Chris Gaffney. When these extended jams are over, the band leaves the stage to thunderous applause. We know there’s going to be an encore, but we have to go — it’s already past one, and our babysitter (my mother-in-law) is going to be very annoyed. On the way out, we see Dan, our co-worker, a guy so cool that his high school band was named for him. He’s a big fan, and is shocked that we’re leaving so soon. Then, right by the door, we speak to Gaffney and Boaz. Gaffney apologizes to my wife for the woman in the orange dress — turns out she’s a groupie who follows them from town to town, doing the same freaky hippie dance thing everywhere. They call her “Stinky.” (Or “Sneaky,” maybe. Our ears were fried.) Gaffney was worried about my wife getting trampled by Stinky, but we assured him that she was okay. Nice guy. Good hair. And we stumble out into the hot July night air, functionally deaf and happy. We are, of course, majorly busted with the mother-in-law, and my wife develops an ear infection, and we later hear from Dan that Dave Alvin played another 45 minutes or so, doing Motown songs and everything. But we left early. What makes people do stupid stuff like that?