ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 16, 1998
By Steve Newton
Dave Alvin used to rock Vancouver in the ’80s as lead guitarist for the Blasters, but this weekend (July 17-19) he’ll be turning down and tuning in to the folksy vibe of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival at Jericho Beach Park. He’ll be performing in a duo format with multi-instrumentalist Mike Shea, and focusing on material from his new CD, Blackjack David. But Alvin’s set list is far from set.
“I’ve done [folk festivals in] Calgary and Edmonton,” says Alvin from a Minneapolis hotel, “and I’ve always wanted to do the Vancouver folk festival, but this is the first time I’ll be there. Usually, I wait to look at the audience and see what I’ll play, ’cause sometimes you might go on after a dance sort of act, you know what I mean? So you try not to preplan these things too much.”
Alvin performs with the likes of Amampondo, Kila, and Las Perlas del Son in the festival’s Friday-evening concert, and also takes part in workshops entitled Under a Big Western Sky (Saturday at 12:30 p.m.) and Jericho Beach Calling (Sunday at noon). On previous trips to town, an electrified Alvin has sweated up a storm—and helped others get soaked—at places like the now-defunct Commodore Ballroom, a common ’80s venue for the Blasters. But are the rambunctious boogie hounds who hollered and bounced for Alvin and the Blasters still along for his folksier ride?
“Yes and no,” says Alvin. “I mean, there’s some Blasters fans that’ll never forgive me for leaving the band, and that’s fine. I’ve gotten to accept that. But most do. You know, it’s sort of a juggle between the electric approach and the acoustic approach, but to me there’s no real difference, musically. There’s cosmetic differences, and of course intensity differences, but it’s the same three chords, and all the music’s coming from the same place.”
Besides releasing five solo albums since the Blasters disbanded in 1986, Alvin followed his acoustic heart by taking part in the Monsters of Folk Tour, which included Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Chris Smither, and Tom Russell. He also coproduced, along with Russell, Tulare Dust: A Songwriter’s Tribute to Merle Haggard, which he feels has helped make people aware of Haggard’s impressive body of work as a songwriter.
“When you say ‘Merle Haggard’,” says Alvin, “most people think of ‘Okie From Muskogee’, or some kind of bizarre icon, and all that stuff is irrelevant—the only thing that matters really is the songs. No matter who the artist is, it all boils down to the songs, and Merle’s got the songs.”
Dave’s got the songs, too, as proven by gems like the Blasters’ “Long White Cadillac” (later popularized by Dwight Yoakam) and the title track of his acclaimed 1994 release, King of California. Rolling Stone calls Alvin “a master of small-town laments”, and his keen eye for the characters inhabiting those towns is evident on new tracks like “Abilene”, “Laurel Lynn”, and “Mary Brown”.
“Yeah, women!” asserts the veteran musician. “That’s usually the best place to start, you know.”
When asked his age, Alvin only responds with “too old”, but his undisclosed number of years has left him satisfied with a career that at least lets him avoid a day job. “When we started the Blasters, I was a fry cook,” he points out with a chuckle, “and I’m not a fry cook anymore. The place is out of business, so I can’t go back.”