Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin

Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy

Yep Roc

alvinsThree decades after their last full album together (the Blasters’ 1985 “Hard Line”), the Alvin brothers are making beautiful “American Music” together again, thanks to a near-death experience and the “entrance drug into prewar blues.”

A couple of years ago, Phil Alvin’s throat became so swollen after a Blasters show in Spain that he needed an emergency tracheotomy. At the hospital, according to his account in the Blasters Newsletter, an intern “clubbed my heart back from a flatline TWICE.” Ultimately an abscessed tooth was found to be the culprit, and the singer recovered with vocal cords intact.

Prior to this, the brothers had recorded their first song together since guitarist/songwriter Dave Alvin left the Blasters for a solo career: a duet called “What’s Up With Your Brother?” on Dave’s 2011 album “Eleven Eleven.” After Phil’s 2012 health scare, they reunited again in 2013 for the soundtrack of a Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical, “The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.” Then, in November, they started work on an EP of songs by “shared musical square one” Big Bill Broonzy.

“Big Bill … was the entrance drug into prewar blues,” Dave told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s the record Phil came home with that was all late-’30s recordings, and that was an eye-opening thing.” Work on the EP went so well that the project was expanded to an album.

For about half the songs on “Common Ground,” the Alvins are backed by LA session players Bob Glaub on bass and Don Heffington on drums. The other half is Dave’s touring band, the Guilty Ones — bassist Brad Fordham and drummer Lisa Pankratz (sans guitarist Chris Miller) — plus former Blaster Gene Taylor on piano. Phil and Dave share vocal and guitar duties, with Phil also playing harmonica.

Far from a note-by-note exercise drawing upon the Broonzy songbook, the album displays all the styles employed during the artist’s 30-year recording career (country blues, ragtime, early Chicago blues, swing, jump blues and folk) but often features one style being used to interpret a song originally done in another. In one instance, two songs are combined: The guitar melody of 1932’s “Long Tall Mama” is grafted onto the lyrics of 1941’s “All by Myself.”

“Truckin’ Little Woman,” a 1938 boogie-woogie number, is given a West Coast blues treatment to great effect. So are “I Feel So Good” and “Southern Flood Blues,” the latter benefiting from Phil’s authoritative harp playing (he took lessons from Sonny Terry, after all) .

In the acoustic realm, highlights include “How You Want It Done?”; “Big Bill Blues”; the instrumental “Saturday Night Rub”; and Broonzy’s best-known composition, “Key to the Highway.”

An added attraction for audiophiles: stellar engineering by Craig Parker Adams at his Winslow Ct. Studio in Los Angeles (Carlos Guitarlos, the Knitters, Stan Ridgeway, Peter Case, Steve Earl) and Joe Gastwirt’s impeccable mastering.gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. All By Myself
2. I Feel So Good
3. How You Want It Done?
4. Southern Flood Blues
5. Big Bill Blues
6. Key To The Highway
7. Tomorrow
8. Just A Dream
9. You’ve Changed
10. Stuff They Call Money
11. Truckin’ Little Woman
12. Saturday Night Rub

Total time: 42:39

External links:
dissertation on Big Bill Broonzy
Dave Alvin’s website
amazon.com
iTunes Store

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