Jan. 20, 2005
by BOB DORAN
"When I was a young boy I used to slip away, down to the Ashgrove to hear the old bluesmen play. There was Big Joe, and Lightnin' and the Reverend Gary, too. I'd sit and stare and dream of doing what they could do.
"Well, it's been 30 years since the Ashgrove burned down, and I'm out on this highway travelin' town to town. Tryin' to make a living, tryin' to pay the rent, tryin' to figure out where my life went.
"I want to go back to the Ashgrove, that's where I come from. I want to go back to the Ashgrove, that's where I belong.
" All the old bluesmen have all passed on and I'm out on this highway, travelin' town to town, setting my gear then I'm tearing it down. Tuning up my guitar, standing up on the stage, I'm just trying to raise ghosts up out of their graves.
- from "Ashgrove" by Dave Alvin
A raw, driving blues guitar riff kicks off the title track on Dave Alvin's' [photo above] latest release for Yep Rock Records. The song, a paean to a nightclub where he and his brother learned about the blues, draws a straight line from that inspiration to the life he lives today playing a modern form of folk blues. Alvin shows his skill as a songwriter by relaying this personal story without sentimental nostalgia for the past.
"I consider all my records to be fairly personal. But this one is more so," he told me when I called him at his home in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles. Alvin draws on his own experiences and, particularly on his Ashgrove album, crafts songs that seem like short stories, some of them fiction, some, like the title track, purely autobiographical.
The Ashgrove was a club in Los Angeles where Dave and his older brother Phil experienced firsthand the roots of American music while growing up in the '60s. "I started going there when I was about 12 or 13," recalled Alvin, who will turn 50 this year. "We'd get older friends to drive us there, sometimes we'd even get our mom to take us.
"It was a bar, but it was a lot of other things, too. In a way it was a political hangout, sort of like a community center. There was a gallery where they'd show political art, photo shows, things like that. There was a used record store where you could buy old blues records and bluegrass records. There was a little lounge area with a fireplace -- just a really homey space, the rare sort of place where every socioeconomic group was there, people from every neighborhood, from South Central to Beverly Hills. So when you went, you felt like you were part of something."
The music? "It was about half blues and half bluegrass, mixed with quote unquote `folk,' even though both those styles are folk music. One week it would be Lightnin' Hopkins with maybe Juke Boy Bonner opening up, then there'd be two nights with Clarence White, the great California bluegrass guitar player, with the White Brothers. Then you'd have Ramblin' Jack for a week, then maybe Muddy Waters, Clifton Chenier, Odetta or some chitlin circuit act.
"My favorite double-bill was Rev. Gary Davis with Johnny `Guitar' Watson, who was an electric urban blues artist. What I learned from that one night was that they both played the same music."
Dave and his brother Phil merged folk and electric blues, adding a hint of country twang when they made music together as The Blasters back in the '80s.
As Dave explained, "When you really get down to it, dealing in traditional `folk' styles of American music, they're all related. Whether you're playing bluegrass or avant-garde jazz, it's all related to the blues.
"The blues connects everything from Robert Johnson to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys to the White Stripes. Everybody from Duke Ellington to the Allman Brothers plays the blues. That's one of the things I learned at the Ashgrove, that those musics are all connected."
In 1973 a fire gutted the Ashgrove. It was eventually rebuilt as a comedy club called The Improv.
Is there some symbolism in his desire to return to a place that no longer exists? "The song's not really about the club. It's about that time when everything made sense. For some guy who was a star quarterback in high school, it might be going back to the football field to be 16 again. For me, the Ashgrove was the place that started me on the road I'm on now."
Alvin admits that life on the road can be taxing. "You get up at 9; you drive six hours; you go to the club; do the sound check; get checked into the hotel; hopefully grab a bite to eat; then you turn around and drive back to the gig; play the gig; get out of the gig at 2; get back to the hotel and fall asleep around 3:30, if you're lucky. Then you get up at 9 and do the same thing all over and over again.
"But the thing I love is that we tend to play about two, two-and-a-half hours non-stop once we get going -- and that's the greatest thing in the world. This is gonna get a little psychobabbley, but the thing is, time becomes irrelevant once you get into the zone.
"Musicians tend to communicate non-verbally on stage, so mentally you go somewhere else -- and that high is addicting. It's better than anything you can imagine. You reach a point where old songs are new songs, new songs are old songs, people that are dead are alive. You are living in a place where the past, present and future meet.
"People are always asking, `Why is Bob Dylan still on the road?' Because when you're on stage everything is totally perfect. You're totally in touch with your art. That's why I do it.
"I friend of mine had a great line, `I don't play music for a living, I drive for a living, I play music for fun.' That's really it. I couldn't imagine not playing live. That's the thing. You write songs and make records so you can go out and play live."
Catch Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men live at Six Rivers Brewery, Wednesday, Jan. 26, with instrumental rock `n' rockers Los Straitjackets opening. Doors at 7 p.m., showtime is at 8. For more on Dave Alvin or The Blasters, go to www.davealvin.com.
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