Since he was 14, José Alvarez has been on a quest, mixing his love for blues guitar with new, exotic flavors — Cajun, soul, folk and his own style of Tex-Mex six-string.
Today he’s a Grammy-award winning guitarist, coming to the Winchester tomorrow (opening for the Tom Principato Band), but his journey to Cleveland and his crusade with the blues actually starts with a local guitar preacher named Jeff Powers.
“I was fourteen years old when Jeff Powers first walked up the four stories leading to the apartment my mom and I shared in Mexico City,” says Alvarez. “Little did I know that this moment was to shape and affect my life forever. I had been struggling with the acoustic guitar for a couple of years, and by the time I turned 14 I had decided that I was going to dedicate my free time to learning blues guitar. It was exciting for both of us. Jeff was learning blues at the same time he was teaching me, so we were both on a quest.”
Perhaps your remember Powers who sent a serious chill through the spring landscape last year when he released his second album, Cold Wind in Cleveland, under his Dead Guy Blues moniker.
It was a raw set of icy-cold barroom blues, drunk on cheap beer and mescal, loud and unruly, something born out of playing bars in Mexico City for seven years.
While Powers was perfecting his art down south, he also taught kids how to play the pentatonic for extra dinero — and one of those kids was José Alvarez. Soon they were playing onstage together.
“Playing in a band with Jeff was the vehicle to meeting some very colorful characters that lived inside the surreal world of the Mexican blues scene,” remembers Alvarez. “Many were down-and-out players that were once well known and some were drogeros but could play the blues. For some reason there were some excellent blues players around Mexico City; players that played the real blues. In the ‘60s Muddy Waters and many of the great blues players performed there and must have had a big impact on the scene. Guys were playing like Albert Collins and Albert King ... the real deep stuff.”
By the time he was 17, Alvarez was already in America playing for the Roosevelt Dean Blues band, based out of Syracuse. Soon he turned to touring and making albums with Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience, a band that won best Cajun/Zydeco recording last year at the Grammys.
Along the way he’s done guest collaborations with Los Lobos, Marcia Ball and Garth Hudson of the Band, while releasing his own records with friends and band mates Los Blancos (currently touring with the boot-heel blues boogie of Diggin In).
Alvarez will be going back into the studio to record with Simien in a few weeks, making a CD of all Bob Dylan covers. But first he’ll grace the stage of the Winchester playing his guitar-driven New Orleans blues with Los Blancos, mixing Mexican rhythms, Dixieland strut and six-string R&B into one long unrelenting party atmosphere.
It’s a sound that has traveled from the heart of his home in Mexico City to the origins of his Cleveland blues mentor.
“His style is pure blues with a lot of Creole and soul influence,” says Powers. “I’m proud that I helped get him started and showed him some cool stuff, but nobody gets to José’s level because of a teacher. It’s really great to see him touring through the city I live in with his own project. That inspires me to keep playing and recording.” —Keith Gribbins
Jose Alvares & Los Blancos will open for the Tom Principato Band Friday, April 9, at the Winchester. Tickets are $15. Showtime is 9 p.m.