Dave Alvin, Tom Russell: kings of roots music
Neighborhood Church, Pasadena, Cal., Jan. 16, 2000
By Dan MacIntosh
PASADENA, CA - Although Dave Alvin is best known for the bands he's played in (The Blasters and The Knitters), rather than his underrated solo work, he was still able to pack out the Neighborhood Church as a part of its acoustic music series. A passionate storyteller and an ever-improving vocalist, Alvin has become quite the local roots-rock hero.
Alvin opened with "King of California," and although such a crown might be a tad presumptuous, on this night, and before these adoring fans, the man did appear to take on the dignified demeanor of royalty.
He worked with a topnotch acoustic trio, which featured Rick Shea on mandolin and electric guitar, Brantley Kearns on fiddle and Greg Leisz on dobro. The sound these seasoned veterans created can best be described as blues-grass. That's because Chicago blues has always informed Alvin's work and because the resulting musical crossroads he assimilated with such blues-y songs as "New Highway," sounded like Muddy Waters fronting a backing unit much better suited to doing Stanley Brothers and Louvin Brothers songs.
But on this night, these strange bedfellows sounded right at home together.
Perhaps this unique instrumental line-up inspired Alvin to do songs he doesn't normally perform live. Especially fine was his rendition of "From A Kitchen Table," from his most recent album, "Blackjack David." This song's quiet reflection may not go over big at a big rock show, but within the less pretentious setting of this church, it caused a whole audience to reminisce quietly right along with him.
Overall, Alvin came off just as relaxed as he would have been, had this been his own living room, with just a few invited dinner guests gathered around.
Each time opener Tom Russell introduced another one of his literate story songs, it became more and more apparent that this guy sure knows a song when he's living one.
An old picture of Sitting Bull, stone-faced inside a gondola in Venice, Italy, is nothing more than a portrait of irony to most, but for Russell, it became a curious song.
Elsewhere, childhood memories about his family's wildly fluctuating financial situation was turned into "Throwin' Horseshoes At The Moon" and gave Russell a chance to recall his father truthfully, including both his good and bad qualities.
Andrew Hardin accompanied Russell with highly-skilled acoustic lead parts, and his oftentimes sizzling work sometimes received as much applause as Russell's detailed songs and witty between song patter.
Fortune magazine may not ever dub these two troubadours the 'kings of pop,' but within the less conspicuous surroundings of the Americana-roots-rock-country world, both are always welcome members of its royal family.