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Dave Alvin Finds Voice And Blasts Off Solo

August 23, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

Dave Alvin has been the guitarist in two of Los Angeles' most prized post-'76 bands: the Blasters and then X.

Now, Alvin is the singer with a new and soon-to-be-prized L.A. band: the Allnighters.

The group's debut album, "Romeo's Escape," will be in the stores Monday, and it represents a remarkable transition for Alvin. The LP should establish the Downey native as one of the most promising figures on America's roots-conscious rock scene.

Alvin must be wary of such acclaim, because both his previous bands also enjoyed considerable critical support, but only limited commercial success. Could it be, though, that the third time really is the charm?

The new Allnighters' album (which is billed as just a Dave Alvin record) on Epic Records offers an invigorating blend of country and rock--at once more traditional country in places than the Blasters' records and more contemporary rock in others.

No one familiar with the Blasters will be surprised by the high quality of the Alvin songs; he is one of the most highly regarded rock writers of the '80s. His songs are rich in cinematic detail and warm, intimate shading, and have the feeling of real people and shared experiences.

But Alvin's vocals will catch the old fans off guard. Who ever figured this guy could sing?

The album's title song is a classic tale of romantic disillusionment, from the perspective of a woman left lonely. It would, most likely, be a smash if one of country's new back-to-basics singers, notably Randy Travis or George Strait, recorded it.

But it's questionable whether either would sing it with more feeling than Alvin, who is a rarity in country music: a soulful singer who doesn't just echo the phrasing and character of Merle Haggard, George Jones and Lefty Frizzell. The remarkable thing about Alvin's vocals is that he didn't sing in either the Blasters or X. He hasn't got the power and range of his brother, Blasters lead singer Phil Alvin, but his vocals have a convincing, absorbing edge.

In the Allnighters' album, Alvin, 31, projects the kind of original and affecting presence that, in a perfect world, country and rock fans should both be able to embrace.

But Alvin--more than most figures in pop music--has learned in the last eight years that the pop world is far from perfect.

The rock community owes a lot to the Blasters.

Thanks to wonderfully flavorful and affecting tunes like "Marie, Marie" and "Border Radio," the L.A. band helped refocus attention on roots-conscious American rock.

By doing so, the group not only opened a door for other independent-minded bands around the country, but helped forge a new respectability in New York and England for formerly shunned Los Angeles rockers.

At the same time, the Blasters--along with X, the other seminal Los Angeles rock band of the early '80s--contributed greatly to a spirit of cooperation on the local scene by showcasing other worthy bands on their shows and talking up the bands in interviews. One of the beneficiaries of the Blasters' support: Los Lobos.

Most important, the Blasters made three of the most rewarding LPs of the '80s. The best songs combined the celebration and spirit of classic American rock with a clear-eyed observation of working-class alienation.

So it was hard last year for Dave Alvin--the group's guitarist and primary songwriter--to say goodby to the Blasters.

Even today, Alvin shifts his weight uneasily as he sits in a Fairfax-area office and recalls the circumstances of leaving the Blasters--a task made all the more difficult because his older brother Phil is the group's singer.

He insists that he didn't leave the Blasters because of the group's commercial disappointments, which must have been doubly frustrating in view of the group's critical acclaim and overall influence. But the bigger frustration, according to Alvin, involved the songwriting process.

"It had kind of gotten to the point where Phil and I were moving in opposite directions and the other guys in the band were kind of caught between us," Alvin said, speaking very deliberately to make sure he didn't reopen any wounds with his former bandmates. "It wasn't a matter of Phil not wanting to do my songs anymore. He was always the strongest believer in my songs.

"I just couldn't write for someone else anymore. Until then, I had tried to find some experiences that Phil and I shared, so I could imagine him singing the song. But those experiences finally ran out. There wasn't a lot left that we shared."

At the same time, Alvin felt pressure, from various forces outside the band, to write in a more commercial vein. Maybe he could ease up on the social commentary, some said. Maybe he could write a happy love song for a change, others advised.

Eager to escape that tension, Alvin began looking for other, more relaxing outlets. He wanted to play music again just for the fun of it. Those impulses led him to the Knitters, the country-folk alter ego of X.

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