Phil Alvin remembers well the first time he heard a Big Bill Broonzy record. He was barely in his teens, growing up in the Southern California town of Downey with an infatuation for music that was fervently matched by younger brother Dave.
Once they hit their ‘20s, the siblings fell into a Los Angeles punk and roots music movement that yielded such vanguard acts as X, Los Lobos, Kentucky’s own Dwight Yoakam (who would eventually score a major hit with a cover of Dave’s Long White Cadillac) and the band that gave a platform to the Alvins’ rock ‘n’ roll passion, both as stage performers and as recording artists – The Blasters.
Before any of that though, there was Big Bill.
“I remember there was a reissue album my mother bought for me in a department store,” said Phil, 61. “The cover was great. There was this real sharp looking guy on it. That was my introduction to Big Bill’s songs. I took it home and played for my brother and we both just loved it.”
The multi-stylistic blues of the Southern-bred Broonzy, who penned and copyrighted over 300 songs before his death in 1958, did more than inspire two brothers in search of their own musical voices. It would, roughly a half century later, serve as the sound that reunited them after a lengthy period of estrangement and solo career activity.
On Common Ground: Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy, the brothers refocused on one their foremost inspirations to cut their first full studio album together since 1985.
“The thing is, Big Bill Broonzy never played in just one style,” said Dave, 58. “If we were doing, say, a Lightning Hopkins tribute we would pretty much have to sound like Lightning Hopkins all the way through. But Big Bill could play in ragtime. He would play country blues. He did everything.”
But when asked the chicken-or-the-egg question about which came first, the idea of recording a Broonzy tribute or reuniting with his brother, Dave didn’t hesitate.
“It was the chance of doing something together.”
Perhaps that’s because another circumstance intervened to bring Common Ground to fruition. While on tour in Europe with the present day Blasters (which Dave has largely steered away from over the years, save for a tour in 2003), Phil was hospitalized for an infection caused by an abscessed tooth. The condition caused his heart and vital signs to momentarily stop.
“Everything has changed since then,” Phil said. “You put more value in music. You put more value in everything. It’s hard not to when your mortality flashes before you like that. I wish it was something I could get away from, but I can’t. But I’m out here and staying healthy”
Dave was solemn and succinct in describing the reunion. “It’s just great to be out playing with my brother.”
During their years apart, Dave released a succession of roots-driven solo recordings (1998’s Blackjack David being among the finest) and forged a devout Lexington following though a series of late ’90s performances at the defunct Lynagh’s Music Club with his band, The Guilty Men. The group, now dubbed The Guilty Ones, will back the brothers during a Wednesday concert at The Southgate House Revival in Newport.
The two will resume their separate careers this fall. Phil, in fact, will make his Lexington debut on Labor Day when the Blasters perform at Willie’s Locally Known. But with their professional and personnel bonds now strengthened, neither brother plans on letting too many years slip away before reteaming again.
“I’m not that stupid anymore,” Dave said.
Added Phil: “That’s funny. I think I’m getting more stupid.”
Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones perform at 8 p.m. July 23 at the Southgate House Revival,111 E. Sixth St. in Newport. Tickets: $25, $35. Call (859) 431-2201 or got to www.southgatehouse.com