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Guilty: Dave Alvin at Revolution Hall.

PHOTO: Martin Benjamin

Blues by Heart

By David Greenberger


Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men, James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards

Revolution Hall, Feb. 3

Last Saturday’s show was proof that Dave Alvin is one of this country’s musical treasures. Working with relatively simple component parts—a quintet (two guitars, keyboards, bass and drums) and blues-based structures—he and the Guilty Men created a dramatic arc, both within individual songs and over the course of their 90 minutes on stage.

Alvin presents his songs from a first- person vantage point, and he inhabits the protagonists’ stories with utterly convincing honesty. The autobiographical Ashgrove lays out his sources pretty clearly. When he was 12 years old, he and his elder brother Phil (with whom he formed the Blasters in the ’70s), would sneak in to the titular club to hear a mesmerizing range of elder 20th-century blues musicians. He’s been on a true and focused trajectory ever since.

The brevity of Alvin’s narratives cast powerful shadows, his rich baritone adding weight to tales of lost love, dashed hopes, dwindling circumstances, and broken promises. However, this is where the magic comes in: Alvin’s songs always have his lyrics and music depending on and supporting one another. It’s the music itself that plays the part of redemption, deliverance, or light at the end of the tunnel. Whether it’s a loner nursing a beer at a bar wondering where his lover is, or a hard-luck loser just needing to hold the world at bay, it’s music that steps in to create the emotional release. The lineup has three formidable soloists in guitarist Chris Miller, pianist-organist Joe Terry, and Alvin himself. However, their instrumental explorations are always in service to the songs; they solo when the lyrics simply need a musical voice to articulate the unspeakable. As a churning rhythmic force, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men were as insistent as a locomotive, and the full power of their sound was given glorious heft by the crisp and clear sound in the room, once again showing Revolution Hall to be one of the best live rooms in the area.

Opening the night were James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards. The two ensembles have been touring together, and it was an apt co-billing. McMurtry’s songs were sweeping in their poetic narratives as well as their social concerns. With McMurtry fronting a crack trio, the songs packed a subtle wallop, sounding like some combination of Lou Reed and Richard Thompson filtered through swampy grooves.

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