Dave and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones

Musikfest Café at SteelStacks / Bethlehem, PA

Dave and Phil Alvin by Beth Herzhaft
Dave and Phil Alvin by Beth Herzhaft

From the strains of “My Favorite Things” to “When the Saints Going Marching In” to “Fly Me to the Moon to “Turn on Your Love Light,” we heard plenty of American music from Dave and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones, as improvisation and extended jamming in the latter half of their two hour set continually brought the crowd to their feet. My friend remarked, “just look at how much fun Dave Alvin is having up there.”

When Dave and Phil Alvin reunited for the 2014 Grammy and BMA nominated Common Ground,  it seemed to galvanize fans of the Blasters and blues fans alike. This group has been touring now for two years, buoyed by the success of that record and its 2015 follow-up Lost Time. They drew material from both of those albums along with a couple from Dave Alvin’s Eleven Eleven and Blasters staples. After an uninterrupted three song sequence, “All By Myself,” “World’s in a Bad Condition” and “I Feel So Good,” Dave, who has assumed the role of emcee and storyteller, said, “My big brother Phil and I started a band in 1982 called the Blasters. He still has that band, and more on that later, but then we were apart for thirty years. He had some health issues and decided to start playing together again, going back to our roots with all those early blues and R&B records we loved as teenagers.” As an aside, the sibling rivalry that kept them apart for so long was probably a bit over-hyped anyway, because it was clear through facial expressions, body language and outright statements how much the two admire and appreciate each other. Case in point, Dave explained that one of their biggest mentors was the Blues Shouter Big Joe Turner, who actually taught Phil a lot about singing. “We included four of Big Joe’s tunes on Lost Time because you don’t hear many people doing them anymore, and there are not many who can sing them– but my big brother can. When we do these, we feel Big Joe’s presence with us here on the stage.” They launched into a slow burning, sensual “Cherry Red” followed by the up tempo shuffle “Hide ‘n Seek.” Between the grandeur of Phil’s full-bodied voice and the clear, ringing tone of Dave’s guitar, these are two powerful instruments.

The Guilty Ones are tight, always on tempo and in command of shifting dynamics. Chris Miller is a great complement to Dave’s rocking guitar as he delivered rhythm, as well as killer slide and picking leads throughout the set. Bassist Brad Fordham and dress-bedecked drummer Lisa Pankratz were rock solid and helped provide stirring four part harmonies on many choruses. When they rendered Broonzy’s “Southern Flood Blues” we heard Dave take the vocal lead for the first time as Phil played some cool one-handed blues harp. Dave also did a scintillating version of “Johnny Ace” (from Eleven Eleven) that followed a poignant and humorous story intro. “Truckin’ Little Woman” was accompanied by stories of their youth and early influences.

The crowd was particularly fascinated by the Blasters tunes as the group did “Border Radio” and two elongated improvisational versions of “American Music” and “Marie, Marie” in the encores. Those tunes followed a lengthy “What’s Up With Your Brother” that featured guitar solos from Dave, Chris Miller and even a finger-picking acoustic one from Phil. “Dry River” featured a drum solo and Dave’s classic stinging lead as the band interspersed the aforementioned tunes in my opening paragraph. “American Music” was done in tribute to the many fine musicians we’ve lost this year, with Dave calling Merle Haggard California’s greatest songwriter. The band weaved in the melody from “Big  City” in the midst of the tune.

These guys have never forgotten where their inspiration came from. As their song says, they epitomize the best of American Music. Let’s hope they keep touring. It is one dynamic show!

– Jim Hynes

Read our Influences interview with the Alvin Brothers here

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