Guilty: Dave Alvin at Revolution Hall.
PHOTO: Martin Benjamin
By David Greenberger
Alvin and the Guilty Men, James McMurtry and the Heartless
Hall, Feb. 3
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.