California Bloodlines

Dave Alvin honors the music of his home state

Since the gold rush of 1849, maybe even longer, North Americans have headed west to the edge of the continent, following their dreams to a promised land of prosperity. California has been romanticized for decades in popular culture as the state of good fortune, stardom, bikini babes, bitchin' waves and an endless summer.

But, as most California natives will tell you, that image from Hollywood movies and music videos is merely a fantasy born in the minds of the desperate and the dreamers. For those born and raised in the state, such a concept is more myth than reality, says singer-songwriter and guitarist Dave Alvin, himself a fourth-generation Californian.

"To us, it's a place where you pay your bills and raise your kids and bury your friends. It's a day-in and day-out place," Alvin said during a recent interview.

"What separates the non-Californians from the native Californians--and I don't want to turn (this) into a sociological treatise or anything--is we're a bit more jaundiced, or maybe just more realistic."

A veteran of the blues and rockabilly act The Blasters, the roots-punk legends X and its country-folk spin-off, The Knitters, Alvin was relaxing at home with his family between legs of his current tour with his backing band, the Guilty Men.

A couple of days later, he was scheduled to head back out on the road, leading eventually to a gig this weekend at the Rialto Theatre. Alvin will play there Friday night, Sept. 1.

Alvin, 50, will perform songs from all of his bands and from throughout his 20-year-old solo career. He'll also play a half-dozen or so tunes from his latest CD, West of the West, a collection of songs written by fellow California songwriters.

Represented on the album are such familiar songsmiths as Merle Haggard, John Fogerty, Cesar Rosas and David Hildago (from Los Lobos) and frequent Alvin collaborator Tom Russell. Their inclusion makes sense, considering Alvin's longtime interest in roots music.

Other, less predictable, choices are Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Jerry Garcia and Brian Wilson.

Alvin said his new CD is "sort of a fan letter to the songwriters, and a love letter to California. But it's not an idealized, clichéd concept of California; it's not see-through rose-colored glass. It's more like, 'I love you, but your breath stinks.'"

In The Blasters, Alvin played guitar behind lead vocalist and brother Phil, so when he started singing on solo records, his voice hadn't yet matured. It was a little thin and sharp.

But since then, Dave Alvin has come into his own as a singer. On West of the West, his rich, full-bodied vocals go down like smooth whiskey.

When choosing songwriters for the project, Alvin applied a set of "firm yet hazy" rules, he said.

"So I sort of sought out songs by people who are directly involved in--or in Brian Wilson's case, indirectly--or just basically coming out of a roots music background, because that's the area I work in.

"The other rule was they had to be born in California. I had to adapt that a little bit in Jackson Browne's case. His family is from California, but he was technically born in Germany, when his father was stationed over there, and then he moved back to California when he was quite young. So he was in California from the time he was 2 or 3 years old."

Choosing to honor songwriters born and bred in the Golden State wasn't a random idea, he said.

"I have this arguably cockamamie theory that where you spent your first 16 or 17 years of life, no matter where you go from there geographically, what you're doing for the rest of your life is in part based on those 18 or so years of where you grew up primarily. So whether you grew up in Arizona, Texas, California or Michigan, it's going to affect you as a songwriter."

Even considering those parameters, Alvin admitted the field was wide open. "I mean there's everything from (1960s folkie) Steve Gillette to (dada blues genius) Captain Beefheart. So I had to choose carefully."

Just for laughs, I asked Alvin why he didn't cover tunes by younger Cali acts such as Red Hot Chili Peppers or No Doubt. Which wasn't such a silly question, apparently.

"There was even talk about considering stuff by Green Day or doing Social Distortion. I decided not to. I'll leave that to a younger kid to do it."

On West of the West, Alvin included "Between the Cracks," his only original tune on the CD, and one he co-wrote with Russell.

"I kind of felt bad about even putting that on the record, with so many other deserving songwriters out there. ... But, then again, I am a California songwriter."

Alvin is starting to become aware of his place in California music.

"I think I am part of a certain era in California songwriters, lasting about a generation and a half--from Richard Berry to me. I think I am the youngest on this album. I am at the tail end of the generation and the world these songwriters inhabited."

Alvin said the idea of the album was born about a dozen years ago, when he and Russell were working on Tulare Dust, a CD tribute to the songs of Merle Haggard. But a fascination with California songwriters goes back further, to Alvin's childhood in Downey. He remembers being home, as a young teenager, watching TV with his mom in the family kitchen.

"There was some kind of afternoon talk show on, and John Stewart came on, playing 'California Bloodlines,' and it's about the San Joaquin Valley. And my mother says, 'That's about you; that's where you come from."

West of the West begins with Alvin's version of that song.

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