Like Dave and Phil Alvin, the crowd waiting to see the brothers at the Soiled Dove Wednesday night was a bit long in the tooth. They were old enough to know the Alvins from the days in the 1980s when they hit the big time as the roots rockabilly band The Blasters, and some had seen The Blasters perform in the long-gone Rainbow Music Hall. There were more men than women, more gray hair and receding hairlines than tattoos and piercings, an older group than the audience that packed Phil Alvin’s Lions Lair show in early May.
The Soiled Dove’s sold-out audience was polite to the warm-up act, Far West, the California countrified rock band that would do well during the ski season at a resort town bar. Far West did some wine/women/drinkin’ songs, and a thoughtful, slowed-down version of Hank Williams Sr’s “So Lonesome I Could Cry.” But once Far West packed up — not before one of the women near the front of the stage hit on the keyboard player half her age — the audience was restless.
“C’mon, get on stage! We’re OLD!” muttered one impatient man, just before the Alvins and the Guilty Ones stepped out at 9:17 p.m.
They immediately launched into the bouncy “All By Myself,” the song that leads their collaboration “Common Ground,” a tribute to the great blues singer Big Bill Broonzy.
Dave Alvin — who left The Blasters to join the alt-punk rockers X in 1986, then left X to pursue a mostly solo career — did most of the talking between songs, his deep voice a dramatic contrast to the higher-pitched wail that Phil Alvin prefers. Late in the set, they played a song that riffed on the difference between the two. “What’s Up With Your Brother?” playfully asks the question each of the Alvins invariably hears when he’s performing on his own.
The answer is that Phil Alvin nearly died in 2012 when a tooth abscess landed him in the hospital while he was touring Spain in June 2012, and nearly died. His voice recovered, and Phil Alvin has said the experience made him more introspective and “less verbose,” though his rockabilly roots showed strong when he appeared on his own at the Lions Lair.
Dave Alvin, who is definitely verbose, has had an extraordinary solo career, with dark songs (“Sinful Daughter” is one example) that put him in company with Tom Waits. He’s not the one who was hospitalized, but he looks like he’s been rode hard and put away wet. Whatever he’s been through has seasoned Dave Alvin perfectly for singing the blues. And, as he rumbled to the adoring fans, there are “a lot of ways to play the blues,” which launched them into the Elsie McWilliams/Jimmie Rogers song “Never No Mo’ Blues” from The Blasters’ eponymous recording.
Dave Alvin sang a powerful version of the ruminative “King of California,” a song he wrote for his mother, “a third-generation California.” That makes the Alvin brothers fourth-generation Californians, though Dave Alvin reassured the Soiled Dove audience that they have no plans to move here. (There are too many Texans here anyway.) He lightened things up by telling the story of how Phil Alvin, then age 12, found Broonzy’s “Big Bill Blues” for 99 cents and fell in love both with the music and Broonzy’s snappy attire. That was the seed that germinated into the Blasters, so they acknowledged their salad days by launching into “Border Radio,” a foot-tapping song made for driving with the windows down on a hot summer night, and then “Johnny Ace.”
“We played that at the Rainbow, back with the Blasters,” Dave Alvin told the crowd, and added that they were probably too young to know what that was. More than a few people protested: “We were there! We heard you!” It was like the middle-aged dad version of the adoring girls at a Katy Perry concert. Which is just fine. Sometimes, even parents who’ve traded bottomless beers for bifocals need to cut loose, and when they do, it’d be hard to find more talented, energizing and empathetic guides than Phil and Dave Alvin.
Claire Martin is an A&E reporter at the Denver Post and a new contributor to Reverb. Follow her on Twitter.