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Rattle and Hum

By David Greenberger

The Blasters

Valentine’s, March 5

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.

Far From Rudimentary

Mike Gordon

Revolution Hall, March 5

Like the iconoclastic band with whom he built his career, Phish bassist Mike Gordon is a musician of deliberate contradictions. Even as fans have come to expect oddball cover songs, stark leaps of style, and a commitment to improvise until you get there, the surprises are still what keep Phish, and the savant-ish Gordon, so engaging. A characteristic moment came early in Friday’s sold-out tour-opening show, during a lovely, albeit straight-laced, rendition of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass “Walls of Time.” Reaching the end of the final verse and the requisite oom-pah bassline, the tinkering tech-geek in Gordon shoved aside the country-fried revivalist for a growling synth-pedal-enhanced bass solo. Duly righteous.

Intermittently bobbing his head, jumping in place, and scampering around a willow-branch-decorated stage to whisper instructions to his bandmates, Gordon was a more animated bandleader than the deadpan sideman he can be with Phish. It’s curious, then, that the band he’s built doesn’t stray far from what he’s used to with his primary gig. Guitarist Scott Murawski of Max Creek (whom Gordon used to follow as a kid) thrives on the same major-chord riffage as Trey Anastasio, while drummer Todd Isler and percussionist Craig Meyers meet Gordon in familiar bump-and-wobble funk terrain. However, there’s childlike curiosity and revelatory wonder in the way the band approach his material (drawn mostly from 2008’s The Green Sparrow) that’s simply pure Gordon.

“Andelman’s Yard,” for instance, challenges listeners to “dream hard” about what it would be like to tunnel underneath their hometowns and leave their troubles behind. It’s the kind of sentiment that might get expressed in the theme song for a Nickelodeon kids’ show—and I mean this in the most complimentary way. Backlit by a constellation of moonlike orbs, and accompanied by a cloud of soap bubbles during the show-closing “Dig Further Down,” the band delivered a set that was consistently warm and inviting without feeling pandering or naïve. And there were plenty of surprises along the way, like an uptempo reimagining of “Middle of the Road,” a tune Gordon first recorded with guitarist Leo Kottke; a kora solo by Meyers (also of the Rubblebucket Orchestra) on “River Niger”; and an abbreviated version of Phish’s herky-jerky “Meat.”

Gordon’s consistently inconsistent basslines have, no doubt, inspired a lot of meandering bad habits in novice imitators, but this makes the fact of his always-present, always-inspired improvisations all the more impressive. And on tunes like “Another Window” and “Radar Blip,” which demand his fullest dexterity, the fact that Gordon could provide simultaneous vocal leads pushes his musicianship into an elite class. He’s one of few musicians, as a friend commented, that you could (and do) listen to run scales all night long. Before you know it, it’s 2 AM and the club is still full.

—Josh Potter

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