The eponymously titled second album by the Blasters was released on Slash/Warner Bros. in 1981, the band’s step up into the big leagues after an independent label debut the year prior. The iconic cover was a hyper- realistic close-up illustration of a face clenched in either an intense grimace or a smile. It was hard to tell which it was, and that was part of its appeal. The face belonged to Phil Alvin, but it wasn’t necessary to know that for the visual to resonate with the music it contained.
Thirty years on, the California-based Blasters are still on the road, and they played Valentine’s last Friday night. A taut quartet, they are founding members vocalist-guitarist Phil Alvin, drummer Bill Bateman and bassist John Bazz, plus guitarist Keith Wyatt. A two-hour rhythm machine, they tore through their own classic songbook of Dave Alvin’s originals (co-founder of the band, he left in the late ’80s for his own solo career) and choice covers. “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You” and “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” were standouts, but the real measures of the confident power they wielded were their takes on George Jones (“Window Up Above”) and James Brown (“Please Please Please”).
Sound problems marred the first third of the set, with Alvin’s vocals completely lost in the mix. Adding to the din, his amplifier was emitting a loud hum that he’d curtail at the end of each number by walking over and slamming the top of it with his fist (a crew member relieved him of this extra duty for some of the set). This is not reported as a complaint, but a simple description of fact. Such travails are inescapable realities of the circuit that the Blasters—as well as their forebears—play. For four men in their 50s, Phil Alvin’s teeth-clenched expression could be the metaphor for their endeavors. It’s not a smile of happiness, and praise be for that; rather, it is intense concentration in the moment. Each of the other three, while not vying for signature cover-face with Alvin, bore the look of utter focus that had them all locked into the engine they’d become each time a new song started up.
Five studio albums in 30 years (and with four of them appearing in the first half-decade) would have brought lesser bands to a standstill. But the Blasters went from being fans of the blues and R&B giants who preceded them, to becoming masters themselves. It is not about the number of records you have out. It’s about making every set in every city be nothing short of honest and fully committed. Amplifiers may rattle, microphones may feed back, but the Blasters will not be deterred. It’s an imperative.