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POP MUSIC REVIEW : The Allnighters Make Dave Alvin's Dream Come True

November 30, 1987|DUNCAN STRAUSS

There's a lot to be said for easing a sibling rivalry and testing out the free enterprise system.

What do these have to do with Dave Alvin and the Allnighters' show Saturday at the Coach House?

Plenty.

For years, Alvin was lead guitarist and chief songwriter for the Blasters--the man who penned such roots-conscious classics as "Border Radio," "Marie, Marie" and "Dark Night." Even though he was turning out the tunes, the Blasters was still considered Phil Alvin's band, primarily because Dave's older brother fronted the group--and is one of the most forceful, expressive vocalists in rock.

Lately, Dave has acknowledged that being Phil's silent partner became increasingly confining, which probably contributed to the artistic restlessness that prompted him to participate in the Knitters, a country-folk offshoot of X, and occasionally sit in with other bands.

When guitarist Billy Zoom departed X, Dave quit the Blasters to fill Zoom's spot but, again, he didn't sing and was actually something akin to a hired hand (though his composition "Fourth of July" was a high point of X's recent "See How We Are" album.)

Still unsatisfied, Alvin decided that he had to write for himself and that he had to sing his songs. So he left X and, in pursuit of rock's version of the American Dream, went into business for himself by forming the Allnighters.

That brings us back to Saturday's show at the Coach House, where Alvin and the Allnighters barreled through a set that featured several songs from his recent "Romeo's Escape" LP and assorted other chestnuts. Along for part of the ride were Blasters drummer Bill Bateman and the Beat Farmers' Country Dick Montana, who, with a beer bottle in each hand, growled a juiced-up version of Merle Haggard's "The Bottle Let Me Down."

The show got better and better as it went along, but pretty much throughout, there was a whole lotta shakin' goin' on. Indeed, whether performing the more country-oriented tunes or the roots-raucous stuff, the quintet generally prized spirit and an emotional connection with the audience over tight, precise playing and--especially--note-perfect singing.

Alvin's ragged, sometimes wobbly vocals aren't going to keep his brother up worrying about who's the best singer in the family. On the other hand, it was fairly easy to get caught up in the excitement and sense of liberation Alvin reflected in singing his songs just as he must have heard them when he wrote them.

That's why some of the evening's most fascinating--and affecting--highlights came when the Allnighters performed Blasters material, just to hear the contrast between the way the two bands played--and the two Alvins sang--the same songs. For example, in the Blasters' hands, "Long White Cadillac" was always a straight-ahead rockabilly romp.

On stage Saturday, however, it started off slow and stark, with just Alvin, bassist Gil T. and drummer Jerry Angel issuing the first several bars; then harmonicat John (Juke) Logan and steel guitarist Greg Leisz eased in, as Alvin gave a deliberate, trenchant reading that more effectively evoked the frustration and disappointment at the core of the song.

That rendition of "Long White Cadillac" was an absolute tour de force--and the kind of transcendent musical moment that should convince both Alvin and us that, finally, he's exactly where he should be.

The James Harman Band opened the show with an exuberant, wall-rattling, 70-minute blast of jumping, swinging, boozing, bluesing Real McCoy rock. Guitarist David (Kid) Ramos has really come into his own, consistently reeling off feisty, economical licks.

Harman himself was in fine voice and blowing a mean harmonica as he steered the band through quite a vast musical landscape, including some soon-to-be-gems from the band's new album, "Those Dangerous Gentlemens." It was far from the kind of set that only a mother could love, but Harman's mom was in the audience--and did seem to love it. That feeling appeared to be unanimous.

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