The Blasters used to be . . . well, a blast.
The Downey band's supercharged combination of roots rock, country and blues was always propelled with such abandon that a Blasters show often felt less like a typical concert than a non-stop adrenaline rush.
While the quartet's performance Friday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano wouldn't score as high as some of its past shows in terms of sheer energy, it was perhaps even more fulfilling because of its wider range of musical and emotional dynamics.
At first, though, it almost sounded like the Blasters of old when the 70-minute performance started with a rousing rendition of "Rock and Roll Will Stand" that was, if anything, even more muscular than on record.
Yet the ode to rock's ability to inspire became a poignant tribute after lead singer Phil Alvin dedicated it to Rick Intveld and Patrick Woodward, the two Orange County members of Rick Nelson's band who died in the New Year's Eve plane crash.
Later in the set, even with a capacity crowd of 350, the tone dropped to nearly a whisper for the Creedence-like swamp rock of "Dark Night" and the 12-bar blues of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Hoodoo Man," for which Phil Alvin blew a mouth harp in tandem with brother Dave Alvin's stinging electric guitar leads.
The evolution of the Blasters' softer side has had two key ingredients.
First, with 1985's "Hard Line" album, the Blasters had become secure enough musically to lower the instrumental voltage and let Phil Alvin's vocals take center stage. As a result, he now invokes more nuance and shading than in the past, culminating Friday in his multifaceted performance on "Help You Dream," a simultaneously funny, aching and uplifting portrait of a lonely man who refuses to let that loneliness destroy his dreams. (It is a shame, though, that the band couldn't bring along the Jordanaires, Elvis Presley's vocal accompanists who backed Alvin on the album.)
The second factor behind the Blasters' musical shift is more practical: last year's departure from the band of pianist Gene Taylor. The return to a basic two guitars-bass-drums lineup served most songs well while more clearly pointing up the flawless foundation that bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman have always provided. The one spot where the additional color of Taylor's piano was noticeably absent was during the boogie woogie-flavored "One Red Rose."
The sparse arrangements also allowed Dave Alvin's versatility and economy--both as a guitarist and as the band's lyricist--even more opportunity to shine. In "Trouble Bound," for instance, Dave's lyrics and Phil's vocal teamed up to convey a wealth of personal history and philosophy in two short lines: "I'm old enough to know the score / But I'm young enough to want more, more, more."
Sadly, even after three excellent albums, the Blasters have never been commercially successful enough to reach the very people they so often speak to in their songs about the pleasures and problems of the common man.
Yet neither the lack of a hit record nor the show's softer touches obscured the basic exuberance of the Blasters' music. Indeed, rather than robbing the band of any of its joy, the quiet moments provided dramatic contrast so that the full-throttle energy of such songs as "Long White Cadillac" and "Marie Marie" could close the show on a thoroughly exhilarating note.
The San Diego rockabilly trio the Paladins opened with a heartfelt, though repetitious, 45-minute set that suddenly sprang to life with an invigorating blues tune that had all the electricity of Stevie Ray Vaughan at his best. It was one of a couple of standouts that hinted at the group's potential for more than just reproducing authentic-sounding rockabilly.