Trail Happy

After 20 Years On Tour, Dave Alvin Goes Off-Roading.

DAVE ALVIN IS not one to let the dust settle on his shoes. The guitarist and songwriter has been on the road for 20 years now. In that time he's hit, it seems, every juke joint and concert hall in the land -- he reckons he knows thousands of bar owners by name -- playing a repertoire that comfortably embraces rock, blues, country and rockabilly.

Alvin is just now winding down a tour that began early in 1998 in support of his album Blackjack David. By Alvin's lights the tour was business as usual, starting with a few dates that somehow frankensteined into a year and a half on the road. "We went out to play a little music," he says, "and it just never stopped."

That tour, a swirl of college auditoriums and smoky clubs around the country, had some fine highlights. One came when Richard Thompson, the near-legendary English guitarist, asked Alvin to join him for a few dates. Another came when Alvin and his band, The Guilty Men, were drafted to join Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell's recent road show, which included a stop at New York's Madison Square Garden. "That was quite a show," Alvin says. "I mean, it's Madison Square Garden, right? I had my whole band, we're playing with Dylan, and we were getting the whole standing ovation thing. We had a good time that night."

Alvin is no stranger to such acclaim. He earned his first taste of critical success nearly 20 years ago with his work with The Blasters, the Southern California roots band that sparked a worldwide rockabilly revival; some of the songs Alvin wrote for The Blasters, such as "Border Radio" and "Marie Marie," have since become standards of Americana and alternative radio. In 1985 Alvin teamed with X's John Doe and Exene Cervenka under the moniker The Knitters to record the country-tinged Poor Little Critter on the Road. The following year, he left The Blasters. After a brief stint as a member of X, Alvin went out on his own, releasing his first solo album Romeo's Escape in 1987.

Several albums later, including both his own work and projects such as the 1995 Merle Haggard tribute album Tulare Dust and the Pleasure Barons' 1993 raveup Live in Las Vegas, Alvin has earned a wide following as a solo artist, which accounts for his inability to keep a tour short. Once the word gets out that he's out on the road, the dates tend to pile on.

"Yeah, it's amazing," Alvin says. "With the Internet, fans are able to share their knowledge of music and pass on news. People come to our shows all the time who've gotten e-mail from a friend saying we'll be in town. Me, I'm just getting my first computer. I'll be joining the 20th century just about the time it's over."

Alvin may be off tour for the moment, but he hasn't allowed for down time. For one thing, he's playing a few Southern California dates with The Knitters, a reunion that may just result in a second album. For another, he's contributing to an album honoring blues singer Mississippi John Hurt, working with Peter Case, John B. Sebastian and Van Dyke Parks.

And for still another, he's writing songs for a record he hopes to release late in 2000. "I need to be home to get those songs together," Alvin says. "I just can't write on the road. It's just too hard to think straight in cabs or airplanes or hotel rooms, and I'm too busy being my own manager and road manager to do any songwriting when I'm not at home."

Fans who've been clamoring for Alvin to make room on his schedule for a Blasters reunion -- or at least a Blasters box set -- will have to wait.

"It's not anything I think about," Alvin says. "I'm worrying about my own next album, and not much beyond that. If it sells 8 million copies, then maybe a record company will get interested in a box set. There are legal hassles over who owns the masters to our songs, and it would take a lot to get us back together. So that's not in my plans. Not that I have much of a grand master plan anyway, apart from writing songs, making records and touring -- in other words, keeping on doing what I'm doing."

Friend and fellow songwriter Tom Russell -- who himself has been logging thousands of miles over the last few months in support of his recent album The Man From God Knows Where -- will join Alvin for his November 12 Tucson appearance.

"I've known Tom for about 10 years," Alvin says. "Katy Moffatt got us together after I heard one of his records, which I really loved. We met and played a little, and we got to be friends. We went out on tour a couple of years ago, and we had a really good time. But I hardly ever get a chance to play with Tom anymore, and for all the time we've known each other we haven't written a lot together -- maybe half a dozen songs."

Expect to hear some of those songs -- "California Snow," "Haley's Comet," "Out in California," and "Between the Cracks" among them -- at the performances, which will celebrate the third anniversary of the local literary journal Border Beat.

Dave Alvin and Tom Russell perform at 7 and 10 p.m. Friday, November 12, at the Temple of Music and Art's Cabaret Theatre, 330 S. Scott Avenue. Reserved-seat tickets, available at Hear's Music, 2508 N. Campbell Ave., are $20; they'll be $23 at the door. For more information, call Border Beat at 321-0928.
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