30 Years of Great Music

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men celebrate Record Exchange's 30th anniversary


Grammy Award-winner Dave Alvin will close out the Alive After Five concert season Sept. 26 in a free performance at the Grove Plaza with his band, The Guilty Men. Alvin was chosen very specifically for this spot by Record Exchange owner Michael Bunnell to celebrate the store's 30th anniversary.

Alvin has been a favorite of Bunnell's since his debut in the early '80s with the Blasters. "Dave has been on our A-list for Alive After Five since [The Record Exchange] has helped book the event," Bunnell said. When the time came to plan a killer 30th anniversary show, Bunnell saw it as the perfect opportunity to bring Alvin to Boise for the first time.

Alvin's career has been marked with critical acclaim but limited popularity. His music is warm, rich and thick, layered with a depth of composition and history that thrills the educated ear but may go unnoticed by casual music listeners.

His vocals aren't his strength, which may be the reason his music has never sold well on the popular market, but they are in keeping with his style. His baritone, almost-spoken-word storytelling voice evokes times when legend and folklore were kept alive around campfires and at the homestead hearth.

Alvin's style vacillates between roots rock, rockabilly, blues, folk, country, R&B and jazz. However, he miraculously manages to keep it from sounding schizophrenic. The fusion of styles holds together under the overarching theme of the American experience: specifically, the Californian experience.

Born and raised in Downey, Calif., Alvin grew up with a heavy sense of identity with his home state. He cut his teeth on the music of John Stewart, T-Bone Walker and Lee Allen. Alvin frequented the Ashgrove nightclub with his elder brother Phil to drink in the blues and jazz culture of Southern California.

Alvin related most to lyrics about his home: the rivers, mountains and towns that he knew well. Finding comfort in the tough gritty lyrics of Merle Haggard and Woody Guthrie, Alvin sees California holistically, not as all sunshine and beaches.

In the title track of the album Ashgrove, Alvin reminisces about those days. "Well when I was a young boy / I used to slip away / Down to the Ashgrove / To hear old blues men play."

"When people outside the state think of California, they don't think of migrant camps and hard times," Alvin said in a prepared statement, "The best California songs come from the intersection where hopes and reality collide."

In 1979, his hopes were realized when he and his brother Phil formed the Blasters along with drummer Bill Bateman and bassist John Bazz. They were soon joined by others, including tenor saxophone legend Lee Allen. Allen, who was 29 years Alvin's senior, was among those Alvin admired as a wide-eyed youth at the Ashgrove nightclub.

Alvin produced seven critically acclaimed albums with the Blasters and they drew a committed cult following in the Los Angeles, punk scene throughout the '80s.

In his book, Get in the Van, Henry Rollins (ex-Black Flag frontman) wrote, "In my mind, they were a great band that not enough people found out about. Bill Bateman is one of the best drummers there is, and then of course, there are the Alvin brothers. A lot of talent for one band."

Romeo's Escape marked Alvin's launch into a solo career—another album that received accolades from the critics but a yawn from the marketplace. The album's poor reception is the reason Alvin was forced to change record labels, according to Mark Deming of All Music Guide.

Two years later, Dwight Yoakam scored big on the country charts with Alvin's song "Long White Cadillac." This injected new life—and capital—into Alvin's solo career. Alvin released his second solo album, Blue Blvd, in '91.

Twenty years after setting off on his own, Alvin has produced 10 solo albums and earned a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2000 for his collection of California folk songs, Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land.

Now 51, he has mastered every style of American music. The list of those who have influenced and been influenced by his music could be a musical encyclopedia. Alvin has played every role there is on the music scene: writing, singing, producing, playing lead guitar, and more.

He produced for Tom Russell, the Derailers and Sonny Burgess. He recorded sessions with country singer Katy Moffatt, rock singer/songwriter Syd Straw and American folk singer, and Woody Guthrie protege, Jack Elliot.

Alvin played as a band-member of X, the Knitters, the Pleasure Barons and played the Blasters reunion tour. He even performed on albums with L.A. punk band the Flesh Eaters, who are credited with the emergence of the Death Rock in the late '70s.

This chameleon quality is showcased in his latest album, West of the West, a compilation of covers. From the Beach Boys to Richard Berry, the Grateful Dead and Tom Waits, the covers are all drawn from California-based artists. The breadth of styles on the album and the ease with which Alvin adapts to each is a testimony to the time and thought he puts into his music.

"Alvin clearly went for the best of the best, because he didn't just focus on any particular sound or era. No style or time period was beyond his scope," said Dan MacIntosh in PopMatters magazine about the latest album. "Dave Alvin is like a history teacher with a guitar."

Alvin's heartland rock and fiercely American themes seem like a good fit for Idaho, a state whose citizens have never lost their connection to the natural world all around or the struggles in its history.

The concert in Boise was a tough one for The Record Exchange to get on the schedule, as Alvin is not touring in the area. He won't even be in the States until Sept. 21. "Whenever you pluck an artist out of nowhere, it takes a lot of money," said Bunnell.

However, the Downtown Boise Association, the Alive After Five sponsors, including the Boise Weekly and 94.9 The River, and marketing company Oliver Russell have pooled resources to make the Record Exchange's 30th anniversary bash a spectacular show.

Joy Hart, marketing director for The Record Exchange, has been working on this party all year. Store staff will be giving out coupon books for The Record Exchange, which they have never done before. They'll also have prize giveaways and a commemorative beer cup. "It's going to be an incredible night," said Hart.

It will be a night celebrating both American history and the history of a beloved Boise establishment. Boiseans will be swept back to the times and places that have inspired Alvin's music for years and will be thinking about the culture of music that The Record Exchange has cultivated in Boise over the last three decades.

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men, 5 p.m., FREE, Alive After Five, Grove Plaza, 850 W. Front St.