Dave and Phil Alvin: Shouting the Blues

There’s likely a great blues tune in the tumultuous relationship of Dave and Phil Alvin.

There’s likely a great blues tune in the tumultuous relationship of Dave and Phil Alvin. They started the Blasters in 1979, but the center would only hold for seven years, when Dave left to go solo in 1986. The brothers didn’t release an album again for almost 30 years, when the duo recorded 2014’s tribute to Big Bill Broonzy, Common Ground.

Today—although they can still get testy with each other about classic blues lore— Dave and Phil appear to be more concerned with joining together to honor the roots music they both adore, rather than simmering in familial huffs. Like Common Ground, the recently released Lost Time [Yep Roc] looks back at a critically influential era of American music history, this time expanding the homage to include Big Joe Turner, Willie Dixon, James Brown, Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, Leroy Carr, and others.

What was the musical interplay like during the Lost Time sessions?

Phil: The basics were laid down live, and we did a little overdubbing after that. I played rhythm and Dave did all the magicfinger stuff.

Dave: Our engineer/co-producer, Craig Parker Adams, has a recording studio that’s about the size of Sun Records’ studio. It’s a small yet tall room. There’s minimal baffling, so you do get a little bit of signal bleed into the tracks—which I like. Psychologically, it was also freeing to record live to digital. If someone blows the ending, you can fix it real easy. You don’t have to cut tape, and you don’t have to fret about it. We just sat in a circle and tracked. Especially for roots music, if you’re not all playing live, you lose a lot of the magic.

In your own words, how important is Phil’s voice to a project like this?

Dave: My brother has a really rare voice— especially in this day and age. He harkens back to the way blues shouters like Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris used to sing. I think when you hear a lot of contemporary blues singers now, they’re putting on airs to try to have a voice that’s equal to the power of the music. I include myself in that, as well. I’m an interpreter when I sing. I’m closer to Crosby or Sinatra in a weird way. I have to work the microphone in a more delicate manner than my brother does, because I don’t have the voice he has. My brother has this big, loud voice that’s kind of cocky and self-assured, but also very emotional and evocative. It’s a voice you don’t hear everyday, and that’s a rare gift.

Why do you think singers today don’t really study or emulate classic blues shouters?

Phil: I’m not sure. Maybe it’s the fact that they didn’t see Big Joe Turner, or were’nt able to stand next to him like I did. Maybe it’s that they don’t listen to those records any more. I also played in the streets a lot, and you’d have to shout to get heard. I never needed a microphone.


Dave and Phil while in the Blasters, at Fitzgerald’s in Houston, 1986.

Dave, there’s often a big difference between a conventional bar-blues guitarist and how you attack the blues. How do you unleash such obvious heartfelt ferocity and soul?

Dave: A lot of my approach is in the attitude. When I was a kid, I got to see people like T. Bone Walker, Jimi Hendrix, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Certain guitar players just moved me, and part of what I understood before I learned a lot of the licks was just the attitude. Miles Davis used to talk about how the way you held your instrument told him everything about what kind of musician you were. For years, I may not have been a great guitar player, but I knew how to hold the guitar [laughs].

I don’t want to use clichés, but I’ll use one: It’s kind of like going for the throat when I play guitar—though not on every song, of course. I’m trying to summon up ghosts and do battle with demons, and I’m not that worried about what I’m playing. For example, I like the way Neil Young plays electric guitar. He’s not afraid of making mistakes. I mean, there’s nothing like a well-rehearsed band, but I also like that when you went to see Jimi Hendrix play, you never knew what you were going to get, and he didn’t know what he was going to give you.

How do you typically set up your amp?

Dave: The thing about the Fender Vibroverb is its dexterity. It’s easier to make them sound like a big amp than it is to make a big amp sound like them, and you can get a small amp to sound ferocious. When I set up my amp, I want the bite of the early Johnny “Guitar” Watson records with a little bit of overdrive, and I control everything else with my guitar’s Volume knob.

Phil, what’s your approach to your guitar parts?

Phil: When I’m singing, I don’t really have much control over what’s happening with the guitar. I just try to match the intensity of my voice. When I’m not singing, I try my best to match the energy of the rhythm track. Well, that’s not true [laughs]. I’m always pretty much beating it as hard as I can.

Dave: When you put everything in the mix, you may not hear my brother’s guitar that much, but if you take it away, it’s like something’s missing. I think the secret of the way he plays is that his guitar is almost a percussion instrument, but one that’s so rhythmic that it adds a certain charm or “life buoyancy” to a track. When we crank up the amplifiers, that part of his playing gets lost in the onslaught, and you can almost hear the very essence of the track telling us, “Put that acoustic guitar back in!”

When you do tributes like Common Ground and Lost Time, what are you hoping today’s players will learn from them?

Dave: A lot of my heroes are floating around on various tracks—everybody from Lonnie Johnson to Johnny “Guitar” Watson to Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and Wayne Bennett, as well as horn lines from players such as Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Lee Allen. So the main thing to take away from anything we do is to follow the trail backwards, and that will help you go forwards.

Blues Gear

For the Lost Time sessions, Phil played a Martin DC-Aura direct through the mixing board. Dave didn’t change his rig much from the previous album the brothers did together, 2014’s Common Ground. He used his ’64 Fender Stratocaster, as well as an exact copy made by Drac Conley of Fury Guitars in Canada, and plugged into his trusty early ’90s Fender Vibroverb Reissue. Dave’s acoustic was a 1957 Martin 00-18, and he also played his 1934 National Resonator.