Friday, August 14, 2009

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: GUILT COMPLEX

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 14, 2009


After the death of his best friend, accordion player Chris Gaffney, who died of liver cancer last year, Dave Alvin disbanded his group The Guilty Men. Asked by the organizers of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco to try “something different” for his performance there last year, Alvin rounded up a bevy of the most respected female performers in contemporary roots music.
DAVE ALVIN
These included steel-guitar player Cindy Cashdollar (who has played with Asleep at the Wheel, Ryan Adams, Bob Dylan, and others), guitarist Nina Gerber, fiddler and mandolin player Laurie Lewis, fiddler Amy Farris, drummer Lisa Pankratz (who’s played with Cornell Hurd, Sleepy LaBeef, Billy Joe Shaver, etc.), bassist Sarah Brown, and singer Christy McWilson.

Thus was born The Guilty Women.

Apparently the festival performance was successful. The gig led to an album, Dave Alvin and The Guilty Women, and a tour, which is stopping at the Santa Fe Brewing Company on Saturday, Aug. 15.

The album could hardly be considered Alvin’s best. (For the record, I believe that honor belongs to his 1996 live album, Interstate City, followed by his more recent Ashgrove, which was released in 2004.) But there’s lots of good stuff on Guilty Women.

The record kicks off with “Marie Marie,” which is perhaps the best-known song by The Blasters (the group Alvin formed with his brother Phil in 1979). Los Lobos does this tune, too. I’ve seen them perform it with Dave Alvin and, just last month, with Phil at the Hootenanny festival in California. Phil, with the current lineup of The Blasters, sings it in Spanish these days.

But on this album, Dave and the Guilty Women do it Cajun style. (Alvin has said in the past that he wrote it as a Balfa Brothers-meets-Chuck Berry tune.) Even though the Blasters did it as a sweaty early rock ’n’ roller, it works great with swampy fiddles and Cashdollar’s prominent steel.
The band gets to rocking on the next track, “California’s Burning,” with a bullet-train beat by Pankratz and a nasty recurring blues hook (by Gerber, I’m assuming).

Another favorite of mine here is “Boss of the Blues,” another bluesy one. This sounds as if it might be a leftover from Ashgrove. It’s about Alvin and his brother cruising around the streets of L.A. with Big Joe Turner. (The title song of Ashgrove was about Dave and Phil sneaking in to the famous folk and blues club The Ash Grove as underage kids.) In “Boss,” Alvin has the long-departed Big Joe waxing nostalgic about the old days and the old haunts where he’d jam all night long. But by 1972, when he was riding with the worshipful Alvin boys, Turner is horrified by all the “burned-out buildings and abandoned stores” and sadly realizes that “no one around here remembers who the hell I am.”

There’s another autobiographical song about another of Alvin’s musical heroes. “Nana and Jimi” recalls the time when he was 12 and his mom drove him to a Jimi Hendrix concert. It starts out with some acoustic “Foxy Lady” riffs. Mom drives him to the show, parks, and waits outside. “She said, ‘Be careful honey of those crazy people inside,’” Alvin sings. The show is transformative. Even the cops at the door and on the stage seem “cool and strange” to the lad: “I was gonna see Jimi, and nothing’s gonna be the same.” This song reminds me of the look in my son’s eyes after I took him to a Green Day show a few years ago.

Surprisingly, the most moving song on Guilty Women is a tribute to another musician, but not a venerated old blues shouter or hillbilly king. “Downey Girl” is a sweet ode to a singer from Alvin’s hometown of Downey, California — the princess of early 1970s puff-pop, Karen Carpenter.

Alvin has conflicted feelings about Carpenter, who died in 1983 as a result of complications from anorexia. Her “sweet suburban songs” don’t do much for him musically. “I never liked her music, never saw her hangin’ ’round/And I never said nothin’ when people put her down,” Alvin sings. But he realizes he feels a connection. “But now that I’m older I can understand her pain/And I can feel a little pride when people say her name.”

One of the only problems with the album is that there are a few too many slow, folkie tunes. Years ago, Alvin said that there are two types of folk songs: quiet and loud. “I play both,” he bragged.

I like the loud ones better, Dave.

Also, Alvin is guilty of turning too many of his vocal duties over to McWilson. I enjoy what she does with “Weight of the World,” a song she wrote that sounds worthy of Buddy Miller. But she also does another original, “Potter’s Field,” and seems to take the lion’s share of Tim Hardin’s “Don’t Make Promises” and “Que Sera Sera” (yes, the old Doris Day tune). After a while, she starts to sound a little bit like Karen Carpenter.

I have to admit I really like the arrangement of “Que Sera Sera,” especially the piano playing by guest Guilty Woman Marcia Ball, who unfortunately isn’t touring with the band.

Dave Alvin and The Guilty Women play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 15, at Santa Fe Brewing Company, 37 Fire Place. Tickets are $23 in advance from the Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St., 988-1234, or $25 at the door.
DAVE ALVIN with CHRIS GAFFNEY
* Also worth checking out: Alvin produced and played on a tribute to Chris Gaffney called Man of Somebody’s Dreams. It’s got some good covers of Gaffney tunes by Joe Ely, Los Lobos, Robbie Fulks, Peter Case, Big Sandy with Los Straitjackets, John Doe, James McMurtry, and others. And it’s got the last song Gaffney ever recorded, “The Guitars of My Dead Friends.” Google “Chris Gaffney” and “Yep Roc.” It’ll take you there.

* Big dose of Dave: I’ll play a 30-minute Dave Alvin segment, featuring an overview of his fine career, Friday night on The Santa Fe Opry on KSFR-FM 101.1 and streaming live at ksfr.org. The Opry starts at 10 p.m.; the Alvin set will start shortly after 11 p.m. And don't forget Terrell's Sound World, free-form weirdo radio, same time, same station, on Sunday nights.

WACKY WEDNESDAY: Songs for Tonya

America's sweetheart, Tonya Harding, is back in the national consciousness once again thanks to an upcoming biopic I, Tonya ,  starri...