A Near-death Experience Brought Brothers Dave and Phil Alvin Back Together

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Way back in 1979, brothers Dave and Phil Alvin started the Blasters, a roots rock group with a punk-y edge to its sound. Despite a Blasters’ reunion that took place about a decade ago, Dave and Phil went their separate ways, with Dave pursuing a solo career and Phil leading the Blasters onward. While we don’t know the specifics, we heard the two had a significant falling out.

But after Phil had a near-death scare in 2012, the brothers put aside their differences to record the Grammy-nominated blues album Common Ground: DaveAlvin + Phil Alvin Play And Sing The Songs Of Big Bill Broonzy. Their first album together in 30 years, it features 12 songs that “capture a 30-year cross section of Broonzy’s canon, performed by the Alvins in their signature style of rollicking roots and stomping country blues.” 

“He was one of our earliest influences and he stayed an influence throughout our careers whether they were together or separate,” says Dave Alvin in a recent phone interview when asked about Broonzy. “Two years ago, when my brother flatlined for about 10 to 15 minutes, that kickstarted it. We had done a couple of things right before then. I had written a song for him to sing with me on my last album before this. We had sung together on The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. Nobody got injured. When he died and was brought back to life, that was followed within a year by the death of our adopted brother. The idea entered into our heads that perhaps maybe we’re not immortal. Just maybe.”

Alvin says the album is intended to capture what is was like when the two brothers were “very young” and “discovering the music” that they came to love. Their enthusiasm comes across in tracks like the rollicking “All By Myself,” a tune which finds them trading lead vocal duties, and "Southern Flood Blues," a song with some wailing harmonica on it.

“We had a lot of adventures as two little kids,” Alvin says. “We never made a record for those two little kids. We’ve done Blasters albums together but nothing for those two little record collector kids who snuck into bars together. I decided that Big Bill Broonzy was the thing to do. It’s good to go to square one. Let’s see what happens if we start again.”

They retreated to an old sound effects studio from the ‘30s where Alvin has cut all his records.

“It’s a small room about the size of Sun Records down in Memphis,” he says. “The engineer Craig Parker Adams is a very patient man and a great guitar player. He doesn’t mind if I turn the guitar up loud. He’s very good. I like to record with everybody looking at each other like they used to do in the old days. I’ve done a lot of session work where they start from the kick drum up. I just hate that. That’s synonymous with the ’80s as cocaine abuses. It’s a horrible thing. I like music to ebb and flow. If it speeds up a little or slows down a little, maybe that’s a good thing.”

Alvin says they picked Broonzy’s biggest hits and then decided that Phil’s powerhouse voice was best suited to them.

“ We got our first [Broonzy] record when I was about 11 or 12,” he says. “[Phil] started singing some of the songs instantly. My brother has a voice that’s tailor made for that kind of music. My voice is more interpretative. [We figured] the way to handle this was to give him the vocal showpieces and I would pick more obscure songs and rearrange them to fit my kind of delivery. It didn’t take long. Everything kind of worked. We just tried a couple of things. He started singing and we started playing. “

Alvin says the Blasters reunion that took place in 2003 was “fun,” but he explicitly puts the adjective in quotation marks. He says the current tour has legitimately been a blast.

“We’ve been out for a while and I’m having a ball,” he says. “[Phil] is such a great singer. With all of his health issues, we’re different guys and there’s less of the competitive brother thing and more mutual respect between the two brothers. Some of the things — not all the things — that I used to argue with him about, I’ve come around to see that he wasn’t completely wrong. The kick is that he’s got such a loud damn voice. I can do it. It’s a little known secret that I can sing with the same power as my brother for about a minute and a half. And then my voice is gone. I can conjure up those big bellows. It’s something in the DNA. I can imitate him but not many people can sing like him." 

The Beachland's 15th Anniversary Celebration: Dave and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones, Jonah Tolchin & the Lonesome Angels, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 7, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $25, beachlandballroom.com.

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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