Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy
First couple listens, this sounded flat and felt no more than earnestly professional, the classic type of album people are going to let play tennis without a net. After a couple more spins, it dawned on me that I was blaming the brothers Alvin for not recording the album I wanted them to, rather than the one they had, always a mistake. More important, it would be unwise, if not impossible, for them to make that record I wanted.
Three years ago, I loved “What’s Up With Your Brother?” on Dave Alvin’s Eleven Eleven. Sounded like an ideal post-Blasters tune by the Blasters. But when you think about it, inability to write together may be the only subject these guys have now. So did I want them to do a typical failed-reunion album of forced-out, inferior originals? Hell no. On top of that, even if collaboration magic suddenly returned, it would not sound like the Blasters because Dave Alvin’s singing has deepened and improved dramatically since those days. Their voices simply could not have the same relationship. So cover tunes is the better option, keep the focus sharp by using one source, and it turns out Broonzy is an astute choice.
Thing is with Broonzy, by the time he was most famous, in the ’40s and ’50s, he had become slick and shallow, huge rep and influence or not. Now, in the Blasters, the Alvins had been masters of bit-of-this plus bit-of-that equals us. So was Broonzy. He was country and city, acoustic and electric and as Tom Moon summarizes nicely, “one of the first blues artists to amalgamate elements of different styles into a seamless and highly personal sound.” One that remains ripe for reinterpretations by folks with the right feel, like Muddy Waters or Dave and Phil Alvin.
(Moon picks Young Big Bill Broonzy 1928-1935 and that remains the basic choice. For less than 10 more bucks, my choice for prime reference is All the Classic Sides 1928-1937. I wonder if I’ll ever put on his dullish Folkways sides from the ’50s, Trouble in Mind. Probably not.)