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Blue Wing

It’s dark in here; can’t see the sky – Tom Russell

Dave Alvin, who played the City Winery on Varick Street in Soho Tuesday night, has grown comfortably into his looks. Back in his punk/roots days with the Blasters, beside brother Phil, slicing through glass-sharp leads on his ’64 Fender Mustang, Alvin’s appearance was borderline unnerving. Red-faced and sweating, with a widow’s peak/pompadour that was a combination of the Eddies Cochran and Munster with a side of Joe Jackson, there was almost something too authentic about the guy. And indeed the Blasters were both ahead of and behind their time, never quite finding a fit despite opening for Queen and playing Farm Aid in 1985. They were hard to classify; Punk, Roots, American, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rockabilly, Blues – they fit them all. Dave went on to play in several groups – X and The Knitters among them, and in recent years has hit a nice stride fronting multiple acts, most recently both the Guilty Men and Guilty Women. He’s also become to California what Springsteen is to New Jersey, including the state in many a song, album title, and musical theme. Alvin gets California in a way specific to his era and place of birth (Downey, in Southeast Los Angeles County.) He also understands an authentically western dimension to the state that’s as sprawling and rural as anything short of Texas, and that attracted Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam and Merle Haggard. Los Angeles is a hard place to pin down, and if you drive a little in any direction it gets even trickier.

But it was Manhattan on Tuesday night, with Dave trying to get his chops down on the opener of his current tour with two of the Guilty Women – Cindy Cashdollar (on slide guitar) and Christy McWilson (providing inspired harmony and vocal leads.) He joked that this was the reverse of the typical tour that starts in Alabama and works the kinks out along the way before New York City, but promised a heck of a show for anyone making the trip to Birmingham. It wasn’t necessary – there was nothing substandard about Tuesday’s performance and at times it was sublime. His cover of Tom Russell’s “Blue Wing” kind of justified his admission that he doesn’t always correct folks who tell him “hey, I really like that song of yours.” He owned the piece and embodied the lyrics. “Potter’s Field” was equally good, and before its performance some guy in back referenced Amy Farris who sang with the Guilty Women before her apparent suicide last year. “You touched a tender subject” Alvin remarked, but said nothing more before seeming to channel Farris in the song, which he and McWilson nailed. There was a heavy spirit in the air, and while he didn’t speak of Farris, Alvin did mention his close friend and sidekick Chris Gaffney, who also died last year. There’s a tangible sense of Western Blues in Dave Alvin’s music, and somehow the heaviness of the evening mixed well with equal parts levity and nerves, and the music soared.

The next night at home, I found myself thinking about the show and curious as to who Amy Farris was. I looked her up online and came across the obituary in the LA Times, along with a few other postings about her death. There was a MySpace page and a few blogs, and a lot of comments from people whose children had been among her music students. She was angelic and beautiful, exceptionally talented, and according to those who knew her, full of spirit. And she killed herself. I didn’t know her music that well – although I may have caught her appearing at one of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festivals in San Francisco. Some guy who was close to her wrote a nice piece about what she had meant to him, and remarked “she confided in me about many things, and in me is where those things will remain.” I thought that was kind of cool, and it reminded me of Dave Alvin the previous evening, choosing not to elaborate and then singing that beautiful song. There are plenty of sorts out there who can go on and on about troubled people they’ve known and what, exactly, contributed to their makeup. But keeping one’s mouth shut and carrying that load is a bit of a dying art. It’s about as common as finding someone who can sing a song, and put something in where you can really feel it, whether it’s technically perfect or not.

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One Comment

  1. Steven Gowin wrote:

    Very nice piece. Thanks.

    Thursday, February 25, 2010 at 2:11 am | Permalink

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