“This one goes out to me,” said Phil Alvin last night at Willie’s Locally Known as The Blasters tore into the somewhat fatalistic 1985 tune Trouble Bound.
The remark was a form of self-deprecating commentary regarding the ragged condition of Alvin’s usually soaring tenor voice. But the song, like the rest of the 90 minute set, was far from the wreckage the singer seemed to think it was.
Yes, the high end of Alvin’s range was, as he described, “pretty beat up” – a reality that probably would not have been so obvious had the bulk of the Blasters’ roots driven, ultra-elemental rock ‘n’ roll not called on a fair amount of vocal acrobatics that Alvin wasn’t willing to back off from. So tunes like Precious Memories (pulled from 2005’s 4-11-44 album) and the jittery I’m Shakin’ (from The Blasters’ seminal, self-titled 1981 breakthrough record) put Alvin through some pretty rough turns.
Others with more a moderate vocal range, like the show opening American Music and a very Little Sister-ish Border Radio, let Alvin’s deeper register do the heavy lifting and sounded quite fine.
The West Coast-bred post punk roots music of The Blasters, which began leaning more toward rockabilly following the 1986 defection of the singer’s brother (and the band’s principal songwriter and guitarist) Dave Alvin, doesn’t revolve entirely around the vocal leads – at least, it didn’t last night. The founding rhythm section of bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman, along with guitarist Keith Wyatt, supplied rhythmic support that was clean, soulful and remarkably agile. That translated into solid-as-oak support for Alvin during swiftly paced tunes like Rock and Roll Will Stand and Long White Cadillac, which the band still plays at about twice the tempo of Dwight Yoakam’s hit cover version.
It was on more mid-tempo rockers, though, that the exactness of the band’s rhythmic drive really became a thing of beauty. A wonderful case in point: another 1985 gem, Dark Night, whic wrangled with the swampy ingenuity of a vintage Creedence Clearwater Revival song (Feelin’ Blue came to mind) before locking in for a big beat groove with Alvin that let The Blasters solemnly blast off.