A BLASTER FOR LIFE
By Paul Freeman
Though equally at home at vast festivals, The Blasters are always eager to play little clubs, where they can deliver their rowdy rockabilly up-close and personal. “I like playing face-to-face, eye-to-eye, coast-to-coast,” front man Phil Alvin told us.
Alvin - guitarist/vocalist/songwriter - not only has a way with words and musical notes, but with numbers as well. His genius is as apparent in mathematics (UCLA Ph.D.) as it is in music.
He can expound at length on calculus, cerebral cortex, revolutionary theories of semantics or the curse of publishing deals. These days, he’s particularly happy to talk about music.
“It seems like a right and proper time for music . I don’t know whether it’s the depression/recession or just the twenty-first century kicking in, but people are very responsive to music right now, all around the world.
“Musicians are coming together due to the changing structure of music marketing, the death of the record companies (or furniture stores, as Alvin likes to refer to them). Back on the street corner - actually a superhighway now - there’s a lot of experimentation going on, a lot of good things.”
In a club in his hometown, Downey, California, Alvin held a jam session with members of Crown Royal Revue and The Thunderbirds. Then he and The Blasters embarked on a European tour.
“We ran into Dutch and Spanish people talking about our Downey jam session. Apparently, it was all over the web. The fact that a little gig like that can touch out to the whole world, and with no promotion by anybody involved, shows a changing environment.
“A camaraderie, on an international level, that I hadn’t noticed before, is starting to manifest itself. The internet provides an important way of communicating with music, along with just about everything else. With the Obama change, there’s a different spirit. There’s a lot of action going on in music, a lot of players of so-called different styles coming together.”
Alvin’s style has been described as roots music. “I know the term ‘roots’ has some meaning, but it’s always bothered me, because it’s an inaccurate analogy to the tree. Roots have their heads in the mud. I would call it ‘trunk’ music.”
He grew up in a musical family. When his older cousin baby-sat, he would imitate her wild, early rock ‘n’ roll records. “I’ve always been a loudmouth and a showoff,” Alvin chuckled. “I think of music as simply something that comes along with life.”
He, brother Dave (who went solo in 1986) and bassist John Bazz formed The Blasters in the late ‘70s. They backed up Big Joe Turner. Blues greats Turner, T-Bone Walker and Sonny Terry became Dave Alvin’s mentors.
“A great deal of music is the oral tradition. Even though we can record now, a lot of is best passed on in close proximity and guidance from those who were guided before you.
“Since the species was first here, the real duty of music has been to blend cultures, to give you a language that expresses the collective knowledge of those who came before you. A language that has context, and therefore, meaning. Written words are bare substitutes for spoken words and spoken words bare substitutes for what is danced or sung - demonstrative words.”
Alvin explained that sound has meaning to us, long before we comprehend our native tongues. “Someone in China, who doesn’t speak your language, still gets the intent of a song, by the sound. It goes very deep into the human brain.
“Part of being a singer is whether you have the tools to have perfect tones and pitches and beautiful resonance. But another part of singing is the ability, whether through lying or through truth, to make yourself vulnerable by actually putting meaning into words.”
Alvin’s music reaches people on a visceral level. “People come up to me who say they named their kid after ‘Marie Marie.’ And now their kid has a friggin’ kid! When you pass the music forward, you can affect people in ways much stronger than you had imagined. That’s the reward.”
“I’ve been playing long enough now to have style, to be happy with how much better I’ve gotten. And I look forward to how much better I’ll be. That keeps me enthusiastic. I’ve been trying to be an 80-year-old blues man since I was 14. I’m more than halfway there now.”
Phil Alvin doesn’t take credit for the exciting sounds he makes. “I stand on the shoulders of giants, because I’m a midget. The music was handed to me by great people and my responsibility is to hand it on. Like those great blues men who taught me, I’m going to play music ‘til the day I die.”