Dave Alvin’s “dead” brother Phil returns for another rootsy splash in the river of life

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By Steve Newton

Three years ago, American roots-rock great Dave Alvin had the fright of his life. His older brother Phil—with whom he’d shared many a van, hotel room, and stage over the years in the Blasters—damn near passed away while on tour in Spain. In fact, he was technically toast.

“He couldn’t breathe on-stage,” recalls Alvin from his home in L.A., “and was taken to the hospital, where he died. We’re not sure how long he was dead—it was at least 10 minutes where he was, you know, brain-dead and flat-lined. And a Spanish doctor got up on top of my brother and beat the livin’ hell out of him until he started breathing again. She got his heart goin’, and they cut his throat open and gave him a tracheotomy.

“So when I was getting these phone calls late at night from Spain, they were saying everything from ‘Your brother’s dead’ to ‘He’s alive and a vegetable.’ Then I kind of went down my list of regrets, and one of them was that, you know… There is somethin’ kind of magical when brothers play and make music together, and we certainly did that in the Blasters, but we should have done more of it. And when he had recovered I was just kind of like, ‘Well, we’re gonna do some kinda record.’ ”

That turned out to be last year’s Common Ground, a tribute to Big Bill Broonzy that was nominated for a Grammy in the best-blues-album category. The disc lost out to Johnny Winter’s Step Back, but still won the hearts of roots fans with its inspired covers of Broonzy tracks like the famed 12-bar-blues number “Key to the Highway” and lesser-known boogie gem “Truckin’ Little Woman”. Those tunes may make an appearance when the brothers play Vancouver’s Electric Owl on Tuesday (June 30).

“Phil was the one that brought home the first Big Bill Broonzy record,” Alvin explains, “but we had a cousin, Donna, who was into rhythm and blues and early rock ’n’ roll, and she’d give us her old records. And then our cousin Mike was a folkie, and he loved Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. So we kind of inherited their taste in music from hangin’ out with them. One thing led to another, and the next thing you know I was 12 years old listening to Big Bill Broonzy.”

The black-and-white photo on the cover of Common Ground shows the crew-cut Alvin kids at roughly six and nine years old, climbing around on boulders next to California’s Kern River—the same one Merle Haggard sang about in ’85. The CD’s inside photo shows the brothers as they are today, hanging out with guitars next to a woodsy waterway, but it’s not the same one. It’s kinda hard to tell the difference, though.

“Yeah, well, that was the idea,” notes Alvin. “We’re still there in the river of life, you know.”

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