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Downey's favorite sons, the Blasters, almost single-handedly spawned the roots-rock movement of the early '80s, paving the way for such acts as Rank & File, Los Lobos, Dwight Yoakam, the Long Ryders, and my own band, the Beat Farmers, among others. The Blasters were positively god-like in those days; experiencing them live was like crawling inside a jet engine and feeling its power rip the skin off your body and pulverize your bones to a powder.
The sight of sweat-soaked Phil Alvin's screaming purple skull of a face belting out "Marie Marie" and "American Music" through vise-clenched teeth bespoke musical rapture and Robert Johnson's hellhounds in equal measure; it was one of the great visual images in rock & roll. Meanwhile, little brother Dave—the group's songwriter/guitarist—thrashed about onstage like he was treading barefoot on hot coals, a whirling amphetamine blur of black leather, blue denim and red quiff.
And, of course, aside from any striking imagery, there was the glorious, unglued fury of the Blasters' music itself. Phil's voice shouted with the authority of Big Joe Turner and a curiously old-timey edge, his reedy vibrato testifying to familiarity with such vocal pioneers as Bing Crosby and Al Jolson. Dave's guitar work was Chuck Berry two-note rock & roll strained through the sensibility of both Creole funk and LA punk. Bassist Johnny Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman formed a jackhammer rhythm section that throbbed and pounded with equal power and precision, while pianist Gene Taylor battered the 88s as if beating the boogie were an act of perverse sexual aggression. Finally, veteran New Orleans sax man Lee Allen honked and grunted atop the proceedings, the final siren of perfection in the Blasters' frenetic mix. Make no mistake about it—this was one of the greatest rock & roll bands to ever stalk the planet, a Ron Jeremy blue-steel boner come to musical life, squirting its demonic seed over the anointed masses.
Yet for all the glory they forged together, you'd be hard-pressed to find two more disparate personalities than brothers Dave and Phil Alvin. Dave is a quiet, thoughtful, down-to-earth type, while Phil—a bona fide mathematical genius—frequently goes off on meticulous rants like a mad scientist from a '50s B-movie. In this respect, the creative and personal tension between the two is not unlike the Kinks' battling Davies brothers—fractious fraternals who fight tooth and nail even as the yin/yang nature of the relationship somehow creates musical fireworks to shake the heavens.
Back in the day, the Beat Farmers spent many a night touring with the Blasters, where I was privy to regular and predictable battles between the siblings. Some were quite amusing and could have formed the basis of a nifty sitcom, while others were downright scary in their personal savagery. These guys seemed quite capable of killing each other should the stars cross in ugly ways. When Dave left the band in 1986, it didn't come as much of a surprise.
Dave briefly replaced Billy Zoom in X and then went on to forge a solo career as a singer/songwriter, which only recently has begun to bear fruit—he even won a Grammy last year. Meanwhile, Phil continued to front the Blasters, but as more members came and left until he and Bazz were the only remaining originals, the juice seemed to wane from Niagara Falls to the level of Tom Arnold having himself a tinkle.
Fans have speculated for the past 16 years as to whether the original Blasters might reunite, and that day has finally come. With the Rhino Records release of the double-disc set Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings on March 5, everyone has decided that now is a good time to show the young'uns what all the hype was about in the '80s.
Well, almost everyone.
"Phil had to be talked into doing this," sighs Dave. "He didn't want to confuse the issue of the new Blasters vs. the old Blasters. He didn't want to have people bugging him at every gig, asking, 'Where's Dave?' He even wanted to have the new Blasters onstage with the old Blasters, but no way—we're going out in support of this reissue, and it's, like, here's the original band, the guys that played on the original records."
"I really can't even tell you how this happened," says Phil in a separate interview. "I never told David to leave the Blasters in the first place, and I still don't know how that even came about. There's only been two times in the history of the Blasters where I ever threw somebody out of the band. People leave the band, and I always tell them, 'There's going to be some point in the future where you'll be upset that you did this.' They should pay attention to my advice."
The Alvins also disagree about the release of Testament. Phil is upset about the anthology, claiming that it's the result of "an illegal contract." Dave views it as belated recognition—if not redemption—for all the trailblazing work done by the Blasters in the early years of the roots revival.
"It feels good," he says. "I always felt that there was the Blasters, the original Fabulous Thunderbirds, Rockpile and the first few Mink DeVille records, and they did something. Those are the acts that broke the door open for everybody that came after them. We created an atmosphere where that kind of music was accepted. I think that's our ultimate legacy. People forget that there was no roots-rock infrastructure in those days. Today, there're 8 million websites and No Depression magazine and venues all across the country where you can go out and tour and play this music. That wasn't the case back then. For whatever reason, we were one of the bands that made older, traditional-style music palatable to people.
"I miss the guys," Dave continues. "We all grew up together; we've known one another since childhood. But at least we can play a couple of gigs together. It'll kind of be like going home, that's my feeling about it. It's partially nostalgia and partially because there's really not anyone out there doing this particular kind of thing anymore, the kind of rock & roll and R&B the Blasters played."
For his part, Phil harbors no nostalgia for the old days and views the Blasters as a living, breathing, ongoing entity.
"I don't differentiate between the Blasters as I play with them now and the old Blasters," he harrumphs. "If it wasn't for the fact that [current Blasters] Keith Wyatt and Jerry Angel told me, 'Go ahead and do this: it's the right thing to do,' I would never have agreed to play. And I'm still not sure it's the right thing to do. I don't want to fool audiences into thinking they're coming to see Dave and Phil after these reunion shows are over, and I don't want people to think that's the way I'd even want it. Jerry Angel and Keith Wyatt are as good as any players I've ever worked with."
The brothers disagree on other issues as well. Lee Allen passed away several years ago, but Steve Berlin also played sax with the Blasters for a while in the '80s. Phil says he'd like to invite Berlin along for the reunion shows, while Dave says Berlin wasn't an original member and therefore shouldn't be part of the reunion. Dave wants to limit the reunion to the five shows currently booked up and down the California coast, while Phil believes if they're going to reunite, they might as well take the show to fans all over the country.
You get the feeling that on any given night, disaster could result, and we'll be reading fratricidal Alvin obituaries before this mini-tour is complete. Count your blessings, OC: the Blasters' show at the Galaxy Concert Theatre on Thursday, March 7, is only their second scheduled concert, and hopefully, we'll get to see them rage once more. Does Dave think they'll make it through the whole run?
"Well, we're brothers, and you know how that goes," he says with a laugh. "And it's usually okay once we actually play. There were only a couple of times when any fights between us actually spilled over onto the stage."The Blasters perform at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Thurs., March 7, 8 p.m. $26.50. All ages.