The infamous Montana perversion of extending negative hospitality to those arriving more recently than ourselves—especially if the migrant in question is from California—makes it seem unlikely that somebody from LA who calls himself as the “King of California” would be greeted with open arms.
The thing is, Dave Alvin is everything we don’t hate about California. He is why the Golden State would, as a nation, have the 11th highest Gross Domestic Product in the world. Fertile, creative and multidimensional, hard-working and diverse, yet somehow unified, with an underlying air of earthy sincerity that even LA can’t obliterate, you have to like Dave Alvin. After a life of touring and recording with a litany of backing bands and band-mates—and recently, winning a Grammy—Alvin still drives a Ford Van he’s named “Lexus Killer.” Perhaps the King of California is the antidote from the source of the poison.
Alvin has led a gritty enough life to earn him the authority to sing about it. He spent the 1980s in the LA rock ’n’ roll jungle, writing songs and playing guitar for The Blasters and X. He’s been on his own for more than 10 years now as a singer/songwriter, a combination which seems inherently to edge you to towards the “folk” categorization. And with the pounding rock n’ roll turned down, you realize “Hey, this guy can really write songs.” His lyrical gifts are augmented by a rich, baritone voice reminiscent of Greg Brown or John Gorka, and his fingers smoke on the guitar, whether it’s on his Martin acoustic or his vintage Fender Stratocaster.
Looking at Alvin’s career in retrospect, it appears that rather than leap into the rock star life, Alvin downshifted into the folk-rock star life. In so doing, he kept it real. He spent much of 1998 getting out of debt by touring with Bob Dylan. Interestingly, he didn’t see too much of the Bard, who made a regular beeline for his bus after every show. Following that tour, Alvin put another 110,000 miles on the Lexus Killer in two years. His hands firmly on the wheel, Alvin, it seems, won’t die in a plane crash, the classic rock star death.
Alvin’s gift for storytelling makes him a master at resurrecting old songs, breathing new and poignant life into songs so old that their authors aren’t even known. His rendition of the 300-year-old Blackjack Davey, the story of a legendary sweet-talking, cradle-robbing scoundrel, is called Blackjack David, and it is known to be a crowd husher. Alvin’s 2000 album, Public Domain, which consists entirely of such resurrected gems, won him a Grammy in February 2001.
In the Public Domain liner notes, Alvin writes, “[Our folk songs] are hard, sad, rowdy, tender, and joyous images of who we were, where we come from, who we’ve become and who we still are. A lot of what is good, and bad, about us is in these songs.” Perhaps it was his deep affinity for the sincerity of such old tunes that kept Alvin from campy songwriting success in Nashville, which he tried once, for the money. “It was really difficult for me to write those funny-happy songs. I just couldn’t do it” he says. Not that LA is exactly sanctuary from commercialization. Says Alvin, “LA is like Nashville, but with better Mexican food.”
Although Alvin has developed nicely into a singer/songwriter/guy-with-a-guitar, nonetheless he has reserved the right to rock. This will be a smoking show, with the occasional lyrical-folksy slowdown. Alvin has been compared to the Dead in the incomparability of his live material with his recorded stuff. “When I play live,” he says, “I want to sweat and jam and make noise and fall down. In order to keep it fresh, great chunks of it have to be raw.” And if you yell out “Free Bird” at the end of the show, I bet you five bucks you might even get it.