Back in the 1990s, when the Counting Crows song "Mr. Jones" was all over the radio, I would always substitute my own line. Instead of being Bob Dylan, I wanted to be Dave Alvin. I first came to this realization after I saw him and his band, the Guilty Men, play live at a club in Austin. I had never seen a band play with such passion and precision, a rare combination in rock 'n' roll.
It was a true baptism (or bar mitzvah) in the church of rock'n'roll. Alvin is a live performer of remarkable power. And now, Jacksonians have an opportunity to experience the thrill of a real live Dave Alvin rock'n'roll show, when he comes to Studio Two on Monday.
Alvin's long career embodies the diverse musical roots that have made up rock'n'roll. While he won a Grammy for best traditional folk album in 2001 for "Public Domain," Alvin can't really be classified as a folk singer. If one had to describe Alvin's mix of rockabilly, rootsy twang, punk energy, and introspective singer-songwriting, there is no better name than "American Music," the musical theme song of his early '80s band The Blasters. Coming out of the Los Angeles underground in 1979, the Blasters brought American roots music to the cutting edge of punk and new wave. In 1986, Alvin briefly joined the seminal LA punk band X, lending them one of his best songs, "4th of July."
Later, Alvin went solo, shifting the spotlight to his songwriting. Looking back at his early song lyrics with the Blasters, one can see a genuine talent for striking images and emotional themes. Listen to "Border Radio," later presented in a quiet acoustic arrangement on his watershed album "King of California," to hear the sadly moving story of a woman whose husband has left her and their son. She has no idea where he is, but calls in song requests to the 50,000-watt radio station just across the border in Mexico, hoping that the signal somewhere reaches him. Many of Alvin's songs have the depth of short stories, such as "Haley's Comet" about the tragic end of rock'n'roll pioneer Bill Haley's life. It ends with the following scene, "a cop walks in a pancake house in Texas/Orders two coffees to go/He tells the waitress, 'Baby, we just found the body/Of someone who was famous long ago." Fame is fleeting, always fading toward obscurity and trivia. Only the music survives. Although he's never been too famous, Alvin has produced a body of work that will last.
His new album "Ashgrove" is a return of sorts to his rock 'n' roll, and especially, blues roots. For this album, Alvin wanted to focus on his scorching electric guitar playing, though he still includes some of his acoustic roots folk. The title track is a tribute to Los Angeles' celebrated Ashgrove nightclub, where as a teenager, Alvin got his musical education watching such blues legends as Lightnin' Hopkins, Johnny Guitar Watson, and Big Joe Turner. In another bluesy number, "Black Sky," Alvin laments the decline of the Mississippi River towns that once gave birth to the blues: "I made it down to Helena, but it's just a ghost town, and I got to Jackson, but they tore old Jackson down." The album closes with a beautiful version of "Somewhere in Time," a song Alvin co-wrote with Los Lobos that was featured on their last album, "The Ride."
Alvin and the Guilty Men will be playing at Studio Two at 133 Millsaps Ave.. They will also do an in-store performance at Be-Bop Records in Maywood Mart that afternoon. Dave Alvin is the second performer brought to Jackson by Kevin Ford, the musical entrepreneur behind the Magnolia Café in St. Francisville, La. Ford has recently moved to town for family reasons, and has decided to create a new venue for American roots music in Jackson. His shows start early, at 7:30 on the dot, are smoke-free, and have a comfortable living-room feel. Folks can sit in an eclectic array of chairs and just enjoy the music, or dance in the spacious room. All shows are BYOB.
Studio Two is helping to revitalize the old Millsaps Avenue Arts District. Everyone who went to this year's Best of Jackson party recognized the tremendous potential for the space. Ford plans to continue showcasing the best Americana music on the road today, and will host Austin's riotous all-acoustic Asylum Street Spankers Feb. 28th.
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men appear live at Studio Two at 133 Millsaps Avenue, Monday Feb. 21. Show starts promptly at 7:30; $15, BYOB. Secure parking and security will be provided.