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Rising From the Ashes

Pop music: Alvin and Case show growth and heart in sets at the Ash Grove despite a limited national following.

August 12, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Even if you build a better mousetrap in pop music, there's no guarantee that the world will beat a path to your door.

Ask Dave Alvin and Peter Case, who shared the bill on Friday night at the recently opened Ash Grove on the Santa Monica Pier.

As members in the early '80s of two of the most stirring rock bands ever to come out of Los Angeles (the Blasters and the Plimsouls, respectively), Alvin and Case wrote marvelous songs that explored the human condition with conviction and heart.

Thanks to Alvin's blue-collar tales of frustration and desire, the roots-minded Blasters, especially, stand alongside X and Los Lobos as one of the most rewarding local bands in that post-punk era.

Yet neither achieved enough of a national following to make it much past the club stage, and over the last decade both Alvin and Case have gone on as recording artists from major labels to small, indie outfits.

That's a history that could break the will of many artists, but both figures continue to pursue their craft with a determination and spirit that is as uplifting as their best songs--as they showed in separate acoustic sets Friday.

When Case walked on stage with his guitar to start things off, he seemed an endearing link to the singer-songwriter tradition that was showcased in the '60s and '70s at the original Ash Grove, the seminal blues, folk and country showcase in West Hollywood.

Case still performs with the Plimsouls, but many of his most affecting songs have appeared on his solo albums--and his focus Friday was on those tales of lost values and missed opportunities; some of them from his new Vanguard album, "Torn Again."

But Alvin was the real revelation.

There has never been any question about Alvin's excellence as a songwriter, but he was not near as compelling a singer as his brother Phil, the voice of the Blasters--and that held him back initially as a solo artist.

For those who haven't been paying attention, however, Alvin has evolved into a captivating singer, one whose sparse and gritty vocal style adds drama and authenticity to his often dark, probing tales about people pushed by society or something inside to sometimes desperate, desolate edges.

*

It's a thematic turf that resides somewhere between the bleakness of Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" and the softer compassion of "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Where Springsteen leans to folk and country edges, Alvin adds a heavy dose of blues to the mix. He was backed superbly on lap steel guitar by Gene Leisz, who is also in the band on Alvin's new live Hightone album, "Interstate City." The band kicks off a national tour Aug. 30 at Jacks Sugar Shack in Hollywood.

Whether redoing a tune from the Blasters days or serving up a haunting post-Blasters number about the tragic demise of rock pioneer Bill Haley, Alvin sang with such character and command that the songs assumed a sometimes awesome power and ache.

At one point, Alvin, who teamed with Case and guest Butch Hancock during the encore, recalled how he went to the old Ash Grove as a boy and heard blues greats such as the late Lightnin' Hopkins--and how he felt nervous now just being on the Ash Grove stage.

Yet his performance was so filled with the heartbeat and tension of life that there's no doubt about it: If Hopkins or those other blues marvels were still around, they would have marveled on this night at Dave Alvin.

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