Three B’s added up to a grade-A performance Saturday night at the sold-out Dakota Jazz Club.
That would be the brothers Alvin playing the music of Big Bill Broonzy and the Blasters. First, the backstory is in order.
Phil and Dave Alvin, brothers from Downey, Calif., had a terrific roots-rock band, the Blasters, that started in 1979. But like most brother acts, the Alvins didn’t always see eye to eye; in fact, they didn’t get along all that well. So the guitarist, Dave, left in 1986 for what eventually turned into a respectable solo career and the singer, Phil, continued on with the Blasters.
Then, two years ago in Spain, Phil almost died of a respiratory illness. Dave came to his side and their relationship -- and Phil’s health – rebounded.
They found something they agreed on: their love of post-World War I blues giant Big Bill Broonzy. So this summer Phil and Dave Alvin released their first studio album together in about 30 years: “Common Ground: Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy.”
And that’s what they did at the Dakota for two wonderful hours: play and sing the songs of Broonzy, the Blasters and Dave Alvin’s solo career.
Dave, 58, who always wrote the Blasters songs, was the affable spokesman, cracking wise and corny, making fun of his own voice and praising his older brother’s God-given gift of a voice. The brotherly love was as palpable as the talent. Phil, 61, is a great blues/rock shouter who doesn’t really shout, and Dave plays lightning licks on the guitar. Their joy in playing together made the music just that much more enjoyable.
They traded vocals on a few selections, including the opening “All by Myself” by Broonzy, and they exchanged guitar and harmonica licks (Phil was taught by Sonny Terry) during a torrid “Fourth of July,” a favorite by the great L.A. punk band X that was written by Dave Alvin (he was a member of X for about a year).
Dave showed both his sense of humor and love for Phil when he offered the playful, almost ZZ Top-ish boogie “What’s Up with Your Brother,” during which Phil took an acoustic guitar solo after a blistering passage by Dave. That, frankly, was a bit like Tito Jackson trying to follow Micheal Jackson.
Phil is the singer and harmonica ace. His voice had the perfect little hiccup during the Blasters' Mexican-tinged “Border Radio” but nothing could top his squinty-eyed intensity on the encore of the Blasters’ “Marie Marie,” one great blast of punkabilly and the brightest of many highlights on Saturday (see video below).
The Alvins were backed by Dave's combo the Guilty Ones, a trio that featured the occasional hot guitar of Chris Miller. The set included two instrumentals: Broonzy’s “Saturday Night Rub” and the Blasters’ “So Long Baby Goodbye,” the night’s closing number for which the Alvin brothers eschewed the vocals.
For the record, there were nine Broonzy numbers, four Blasters nuggets, four Dave Alvin solo pieces, a Jimmie Rodgers cover, one traditional tune and that aforementioned X song written by Dave Alvin.
Random trivia: another more famous sibling act also hails from Downey, Calif. -- the Carpenters.