by Roy Kasten
Just a few hours before the show, F-4 tornadoes flirted with the far outskirts of the metro area, thunderstorms capable of producing shot-glass-sized hail poured on and the air after the big cell passed was thick as gruel and still smelled of electricity and flooded out drains.
In short, it was excellent weather for Dave Alvin's return to Off Broadway.
People still talk about the last time. I still talk about the last time, because I was there when a dozen tornadoes touched down in St. Louis, knocking out power to the Off Broadway Night Club and making Lemp Avenue all but impassable from the fallen trees. The joint, recently taken over by its present owner, was dark, save for candles and one emergency light above the exit. Still, a 100 or so admirers of one of America's finest rock & roll songwriters and guitarists stuck it out, and listened to Alvin play a wholly unplugged set, with friend, native St. Louisian and keyboardist for the Skeletons, Joe Terry, banging away on a toy piano beside him.
Last night, however, the electricity never failed. The power in the club stayed on as well.
Backed by the Guilty Ones - three Austinites named Chris Miller (guitar), Brad Fordham (bass) and Lisa Pankratz (drums) - and supplemented by Terry on keys for half the night, Alvin left his acoustic guitar in the van and played a 13-song set of hard Texas-style blues and primitive and poetic rock & roll. And told stories, lots of stories, before and after the songs and in the hot heart of the music as well.
The doors were to open at 8:30 p.m. and the show to start a half hour later, which must have meant that lines stretched down the slick avenue, though I didn't see that, having arrived at 9:02 p.m. to a packed room of geezers and golfers and curious kids already draining the taps and killing the gin. The Skeletons' opening set was on its first song, a cover of the Easybeats' "St. Louis." Apparently you can set your watch by bassist and leader Lou Whitney, but your watch better run fast. There's no warm-up tune for the Springfield, Missouri veterans -- the word is too easy; let's call them "fuck-your-pension-rock-&-roll-lifers" -- who wake up in the morning tuned, greased, tight and primed to remake everything you thought you knew about American music -- at least since the last time you'd seen the band. Guitarist Donnie Thompson, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks, keyboardist Terry and bassist Whitney have been playing together since the early '80s, a party band back when the party was every other main street from here to the Ozarks and back, and the soundtrack was silly rhythm & blues, blood-bucket honky tonk and Sun Studios acetates.
When the Skeletons play a Waylon Jennings song like "Only Daddy That Will Walk the Line," the musicians deconstruct it through the lens of Jimi Hendrix and the Trashmen; when they do an instrumental waltz, Thompson's guitar sings like a pedal steel; and when they pay homage to their Missouri roots they turn to Ronnie Self and a great, forgotten song, "Waiting For My Gin to Hit Me," and close out a 45-minute, style-and-tempo-and-mood-shifting set that's just another night at the office for them -- and just another clinic for anyone still wondering how rock & roll is meant to be played.
Dave Alvin has a new record, Eleven Eleven, on the YepRoc label, and that meant he would only nick the surface of his nearly four-decades-deep catalogue. Thankfully it's a strong record of narrative songs and outlaw electric blues, sometimes both at the same time. After taking the stage -- dressed, as always, in black, with the straw cowboy hat and red rockabilly neck kerchief he surely sleeps in -- strapping on the Stratocaster that ought to be, but probably won't be, Hall of Fame-bound, and stretching out on frequent set-opener "So Long Baby Goodbye," the 55-year-old pride of Downey, California turned quickly to the new record for "Harlan County Line," a song that Alvin lent to the Justified FX series and which precisely illustrates just what makes his music matter.
It's not exactly authenticity, that distasteful word, but it's the felt force of authentic life, captured in words and music, of how people live, work, love, die and rock-the-fuck-out every day and every night, even in places and times that might be far removed from the writer and singer's experience.
Or not, as this song opens with the singer lighting a menthol trying to clear his mind. You can hear warehouses of those smokes, menthol or otherwise, in his voice, the craggiest, croaking baritone this side of post-near-death-experience Dylan. That voice, that flashing guitar, that band -- laying down the blues in ways that let the blues live on -- makes you believe what you're hearing. None of it's real, it's all on-stage and composed between stops of his own Never Ending Tour, but it has the feeling of the real -- like a third shot of bourbon when you need it, like the heat of the flame when the lighter hits the straight one more time.
Every song has a story, and Alvin told enough of those tales to make the crowd feel it was getting something singular, which we all were, a peek into his unpretentious genius for words and melodies and his in-the-blood instinct for mining American musical bedrock and striking truth. He expressed the affection he still feels for his brother and co-Blasters founder Phil, but got a dig in at the same time, reminding the audience that Phil may have sung "Long White Cadillac" but that he gets the words right. Before the new song "Black Rose of Texas" he paid tribute to Amy Farris, the fiddle player and member of his all-star band the Guilty Women, who took her own life in 2009. Before "King of California," perhaps his finest song, he simply said that he wrote it for his mother - all other context was left, appropriately, a mystery.
If thirteen songs seem stingy for a show these days, it's worth remembering that 1) a single Alvin song has the street-value of a dozen compositions by most any peer you might name and 2) a tune like "Abilene" gets pushed and urged into five-minute instrumental breaks that should be well-studied by any jam or blues or festival-hungry band. There yet remain ways of building out, far out, the dynamics of a song, and Alvin is still finding the right routes to do just that, though it hardly hurts to have a guitarist like Miller cutting a bottleneck lead or a drummer like Pankratz getting a tense and deft drum solo that made "Dry River" more dramatic than the Blasters, even in their prime, might have made it.
The sweaty night closed with an encore of two songs: "Run Conejo Run," a new song written for Alvin's "soul brother" Chris Gaffney, who died in 2008, and, of course, "Marie Marie," another Blasters-period song that's still exhilarating after all the bar bands and rockabillies have done it to near death. "I'd play them all," Alvin said, clutching a towel at the end, "but I'm down to 97 pounds at this point." He didn't need to apologize. The crowd had sweated out the storm with him and hung on every word, riff, story and rhythm from one of the last of the true believers.
Critic's Notebook: Off Broadway is now offering $2 secure, off-street parking in the Lemp Brewery lot, and while a few cars took advantage of the deal, the side streets were still lined with vehicles. I suspect the coming winter will make that lot a welcome addition to one of the finest venues in town.
Personal Bias: I didn't know it at the time, but I've been following Alvin's career since a childhood friend gave me his copy of the Blasters' second album when I was 16. "It sounds like Sha Na Na," my pal said. I took it home and thought it sounded like Elvis Presley backed by the E Street Band.
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones setlist:
So Long Baby Goodbye
Harlan County Line
Boss of the Blues
Black Rose of Texas
Long White Cadillac
Johnny Ace Is Dead
King of California
Out of Control
4th of July
Run Conejo Run