Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones and Bill Coffey and His Cash-Money Cousins @ the VAC (9/15/12)

I always like to tell people that Dave Alvin's old band, the Blasters, was "the band that the Stray Cats wanted to be."  That's not entirely correct--for one thing, it seems to give Brian Setzer way too much credit--but I do think that there's a little bit of truth there.  The Blasters have always felt tougher, more real to me than the Stray Cats have.  Part of that has to do with the fact that they learned their chops directly from old-school bluesmen like Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker.  More important than that, however, is the fact that, as far as roots-based dudes go, you won't find too many better songwriters than Dave Alvin.  When you add that to my very fond memories of his 2007 Alive After Five performance, you can understand why this show excited me so much.

I counted over seventy people when my friend and I arrived at the VAC around 8:20.  I was disappointed but not terribly surprised to see that, aside from another friend of mine who showed up a bit later, we were possibly the two youngest people in the entire audience (did I mention that I turned 30 this year?).  You'd have thought that at least a few rockabilly cats would've turned out for this deal.  Oh well.  At any rate, it did my heart good to see roots-savvy folks like the Country Club/Frim Fram Four's Jonah Shue and a.k.a. Belle's Catherine Merrick in attendance.

Local musician Bill Coffey opened for Dave Alvin this night.  His website says that he's been compared to Gram Parsons and Bruce Springsteen, but much more than the Grievous Angel or the Boss, Coffey's sly, conversational tenor and hard-luck romanticism made me think of Steve Earle.  Whomever you compare him to, the man definitely knew his way around his own well-turned phrases and varnished tunes.  So did his backing band, which featured a.k.a. Belle's Chris Galli on bass, Thomas Paul on guitar and mandolin and, most prominently, Dave Manion on lead guitar.

Not long after Bill Coffey and His Cash-Money Cousins wrapped up, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones took the stage.  I don't think that hero worship alone tempts me to call this the best performance of the year so far (leaving alone some of the sets that I saw at Treefort).  It has more to do with the fact that, while Toots and the Maytals' set showed an elder statesman hanging in there and Jason Isbell's set showed a young turk building his rep, this set showed a seasoned pro getting even better.  Alvin's songbook has grown so impressive that he opened with perhaps its crown jewel, "4th of July," and the rest of the set didn't suffer for it.  Indeed, newer songs like "Harlan County Line," "Johnny Ace Is Dead," "Black Rose of Texas" and "Run Conejo Run" held up very well against established classics like "Long White Cadillac" and "Marie Marie."  Not only that, Alvin's baritone sprechgesang has become so nuanced and assured that I'd have been willing to contest his claim that his brother Phil sings "Cadillac" better than he does.  Meanwhile, Chris Miller's weeping, stinging slide guitar complemented the leader's fiery soloing while Brad Fordham's elastic basslines and Lisa Pankratz's strong, precise drumming kept everything moving forward.  And to top it all off, Alvin's many warm, funny stories and dedications added a wonderfully earthy, intimate feel to the whole affair.

It was just too bad that more youngbloods weren't there.  Shows like this don't come along too often.

You can find info about Dave Alvin and Bill Coffey on Facebook and elsewhere online.  Special thanks to Sam Stimpert and the Visual Arts Collective.

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