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Rare acoustic performance by Dave Alvin

By Timothy Lynch Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday November 11, 2000

Most artists get pigeon-holed early in their careers. Not so Dave Alvin, whose work embraces nearly every style of American popular music. 

Alvin first received national attention as a guitarist with the Blasters, a swinging jump and rockabilly unit that began in the early 1980s.  

By the end of the decade he became a replacement guitarist in the seminal Los Angeles based punk group, X, and its more acoustic alter-ego, The Knitters. 

By the late 1980s, Alvin had begun making a name for himself as a song writer. His 1987 album, Romeo’s Escape (Epic), featured two songs that were covered by other artists.  

Dwight Yoakam made something of a hit out of "Long White Cadillac," while X created a more underground sensation with "Fourth Of July," a song which was also covered later by Texas singer and song writer Robert Earl Keen. 

Alvin has been dubbed "the King Of California," after one of his songs, for his distinctly California outlook. 

Alvin’s song writing is often more country than rock, and his visions of California have more in common with Merle Haggard than the Beach Boys.  

(Alvin recorded an entire album of Haggard covers, Tulare Dust, in 1994.) Where the Beach Boys’ version of California is all a dream filled with surf, sun and pretty women, Alvin’s perspective is more rural, rooted in the land, and distinctly working class. 

Alvin has delved deeply into these themes on his most recent of seven solo albums, Blackjack David (1998), and even more recently, Public Domain: Songs From The Wild Land (2000), both of which were issued on Oakland’s Hightone Record label. 

On Public Domain, Alvin recorded songs that for the most part live up to the promise in the title; these are songs so deeply embedded in the folk tradition that they have long since been separated from authorship or copyright.  

With his talented band, The Guilty Men, Alvin explores tracks like the standard folk ballad, “Shenandoah,” which he performs in a particularly, slow, dreamy and ethereal style on the recording. 

With a voice that might be best characterized as a cross between Johnny Cash and Gordon Lightfoot, Alvin’s choice of songs on Public Domain is hardly the stuff of the California or American Dreams.  

To the contrary, like much of the folk music tradition, Alvin’s choices are more often reflective of much darker themes in American history, such as the tale of going off to war found in “Texas Rangers,” stories of train men like “Railroad Bill,” or “The Murder Of The Lawson Family,” or others who live a “Short Life Of Trouble.” 

Such sounds are hardly unique to Alvin’s repertoire. Anyone who has studied the American folk tradition, be it through the Smithsonian collections of Harry Smith, or the trips back in time favored in the acoustic music of Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Bob Dylan or Jerry Garcia know well. 

Such themes are of course tempered with happier sounds. There is an almost jug band sound to Alvin’s versions of “Walk Right In” and "Delia,” for example. 

Dave Alvin is performing a rare series of solo acoustic concerts in support of his new record.  

Alvin brings this series to Berkeley on Saturday, November 11, at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse.