“I know you’ve been covering your ears all night,” said Dave Alvin to a patron seated next to a sizeable speaker last night at the Southgate House Revival in Newport. “But I should really warn you that things are about to get ugly.”
Up to that point, the performance the Grammy winning songwriter and guitarist was showcasing with elder sibling Phil Alvin was something of a roots rock jamboree. The initial repertoire dealt with the more acoustic driven works from their fine new Big Bill Broonzy tribute album Common Ground (All By Myself, Key to the Highway and especially the ragtime flavored instrumental Saturday Night Rub) as well as lighter fare from the brothers ‘70s and early ‘80s tenure in The Blasters (Jimmie Rodgers’ Never No More Blues) and brother Dave’s solo catalogue (the still regal King of California, which was dedicated to the Alvins’ mother). And, frankly, one could have walked home from that expansive segment and considered the evening a win.
But the “nasty” aspect had Dave switching to electric guitar and piloting the vastly rockier aspects of this highly roots conscious outing.
For the Broonzy songs, that meant riding the crest of lean, wily grooves that unfolded during Southern Flood Blues and pumping up the rockabilly sass of Truckin’ Little Woman. For the Blasters tunes, that meant serving up a big, chunky slice of roots rock fun during Border Radio and igniting the gospel-esque stride in their 1981 version of Samson and Delilah. And to prove the great Broonzy wasn’t the only inspiration at work, brother Phil delivered the ‘50s-era James Brown hit Please Please Please with the kind of combustible vocal vigor that stood in contrast to the ultra-reserved stage presence he maintained throughout the 2 ¼ hour performance.
The show wasn’t some makeshift Blasters reunion, either. In that band, the boundaries were clearly set (Phil sang, Dave wrote and played guitar). Last night, the brothers were equal partners. And while Phil’s ageless rockabilly tenor was obviously the more buoyant vocal utensil, Dave’sfolk-directed singing (especially during the anthemic Dry River and Fourth of July) nicely balanced a roots-hearty rock ‘n’ roll show fueled by extraordinary musical instinct and undeniable brotherly love.