A Blast From the Past

Onetime Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin makes tradition sound new again.

"It was frustrating," he goes on, "in that when they'd tear down an orange grove, you lost a place to play. Or they'd pave the banks of a river or just pave the whole thing. It was sad, but it wasn't until I got older and saw it happening in places where you thought it would never happen that it really bothered me."

So, too, did the preconceptions about Downey that dogged the Blasters when the act first ventured into the L.A. club scene. "In any large city, especially an urban mass like Los Angeles, there are social strata," Alvin notes. "Which is why it took us a while at first to get gigs in Hollywood. Nobody there thought that there was even life in places like Downey, or Bellflower, or East L.A. But in the meantime, we sharpened our teeth playing in biker and country bars out in what people in Hollywood considered the sticks. So instead of a band still figuring out what we sounded like, we already had our sound when we hit there. We were sort of a discovery. I won't say we became millionaires, but a lot of bands got into us, and so did their followings."

Success, however, came at a price. Alvin's playing and songwriting improved steadily from the appearance of The Blasters, a 1981 album that featured neo-classics like "Border Radio" and "Marie, Marie," to the release of latter-day offerings such as 1983's Non Fiction and 1985's Hard Line. But life on the road eventually lost its appeal. "The band started out with two missions," he discloses. "One was to see if we could make a living playing the music we wanted to play, and the other was to have fun. Well, we were earning a living, but it stopped being fun."

Today, Phil Alvin and bassist John Bazz continue to tour under the Blasters name, but Dave is happier on his own. He's just as pleased to be cited as an inspiration for the y'all-ternative movement, even though he can't quantify "how much of a direct influence the Blasters or myself had on Son Volt or Wilco. I'd say little to none, except maybe in the same way that a lot of people, myself included, rode a trail blazed by somebody before us who we never even heard of. I like a bunch of these bands, and I'm not putting any of them down, but many of them are more influenced by Neil Young and Gram Parsons than, say, Hank Williams or the Blasters."

There are several reasons for this state of affairs, Alvin believes. "First off, there's no country music anymore. In the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, there was always this other universe called country music that existed outside of pop music, and it remained relatively pure. It was a well you could draw inspiration from, the same as blues and R&B. Now there's no such thing. Country music's all pop today." As a result, "the kind of people who buy Garth Brooks records have kids who are buying records by Metallica--so those kids don't experience Hank Williams or anything like that. When they grow out of Metallica and they hear Hank or George Jones, for some of them, it's an eye-opening experience: 'Here's some soul music.' In some ways, it's like a lot of music today, whether it's country or folk. It's gone back to being underground music that's not part of the mainstream, yet it's part of our culture, and it's always going to be there. But each generation has to go and find it for themselves--and an aspect of it that works for them.

"There's always been an audience for this music," he contends, "and I think one of the things that's helping it now is the Internet. There are alternative ways of getting the message out other than MTV. The people who like this stuff are finding more ways of contacting each other in ways that weren't there when the Blasters, Jason and the Scorchers and Los Lobos first came out. You know, the roots-rock scene is pretty closed, but on the other hand, it's an incredibly healthy scene that in the past few years has become healthier than I've seen it in a long time."

Given this sunny forecast, Alvin thinks that the time might be right to try to alter a few perceptions about his brand of folk music. "When Bob Dylan went electric back in Newport in the Sixties and people got all upset, he was trying to make a similar point," he says. "Maybe that point needs to be made again."

AT&T LoDo Music Festival, with Little Feat, Tower of Power, the Samples, Anders Osbourne, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men, Chubby Carrier and the Swamp Boogie Band, and the Holmes Brothers. Saturday, July 19, stages on Wazee between 18th and 20th streets, $10, 888-LODO or 1-800-444-

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