Phil Alvin of The Blasters isn’t the chattiest soul, bless him. Not that he’s rude or arrogant, obtuse or evasive. He’s simply a man of little words, preferring to allow his music, his art, to speak for him. He’s friendly, warm even, but not one to elaborate on a point if he feels it unnecessary.
The band was formed in 1978 by Phil and his brother Dave Alvin along with bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman. To this day, all but Dave remain in the band — Phil’s brother went the solo route in ’86 but occasionally still appears live with The Blasters. Keith Wyatt has been the guitarist since ’96. Besides that, Phil says that the band has barely changed or evolved at all.
“It’s pretty much just American rock & roll, hopefully at its best,” Alvin says. “We’ve stuck by that.”
While the band is clearly influenced by early rock & roll and rockabilly, their innate energy, not to mention their Cali location in the mid-’70s going into the ’80s, led them to be billed with punk bands such as X, Black Flag, The Gun Club, and the Screamers. Later, Henry Rollins would write of them in his ’95 book Get in the Van:
“In my mind, they were a great band that not enough people found out about. Bill Bateman is one of the best drummers there is, and then of course, there are the Alvin brothers. A lot of talent for one band.”
That remains the case to this day (minus one Alvin); Phil Alvin, Bazz, and Bateman, along with Wyatt, proudly carry the torch forward, prompting Alvin to say of the current lineup, “We’ve had it for such a long time, but it’s one of the best.”
The most recent Blasters album, Fun on Saturday Night, was released in 2012, a full seven years ago. That gap is not unusual for a legacy act without major label backing in this day and age — it’s near-impossible to make money from recorded music when nobody wants to pay for it.
“It’s quite a different game,” Alvin agrees. “You have to stay on the road, you know? And that’s pretty much what we try to do. The record label support is not much anymore, so you stay on the road.”
Yeah, that’s the old switcheroo that bands are having to live with nowadays. There was a time when musicians would tour in order to support (and ultimately make money from) their recorded output. Now, they release music in order to promote the tours — it’s in the live environment, and from merch, that the income is generated now. Still, artists are artists, and they’re always wanting to work on fresh material.
“We’re working on a new record, so hopefully that’ll be out in the springtime,” Alvin says.
The influence of The Blasters could be heard far and wide; in 1980, British Elvis-alike Shakin’ Stevens recorded the Blasters tune “Marie, Marie” for his hit This Ole House album. Five years later, he recorded “So Long Baby, Goodbye” for the Lipstick, Powder and Paint album. That might sound like small potatoes on this side of the Atlantic, but in those early ’80s years, Shakey was a bonafide pop star with his ’50s throwback vibe.
Here in the States too, the influence of the Blasters can be heard, particularly with rockabilly-inspired punk bands such as the aforementioned X and also The Cramps (so pretty much every psychobilly band that followed).
“That’s been true for a long time,” Alvin says. “I won’t mention any names, but the Blasters have been very influential.”
The Blasters are not kids anymore, and the likelihood of them suddenly breaking big now, with their Americana/rockabilly twang, is slim. But they have every right to look back on their legacy with pride. It’s interesting that, when taking a closer look, the changes to the music industry might not have affected them much at all, because this is a band that was always built for the road.
They released their first four acclaimed albums in quick succession between 1980 and ’85, and then it was a full 20 years before the fifth — 2005’s 4-11-44. They didn’t split, they just toured and toured and toured. These guys are road-dogs — dusty, suspicious strangers who will roll into your town, kick ass, and split. That’s the way it’s always been, and they’ve always had a blast (pardon the pun) doing it right here in San Francisco.
“We have been up there many times,” Alvin says. “We used to like to play The Stone. Bill Graham was always very good to us. The Mabuhay Gardens too. San Francisco’s been a great place for us.”
Alvin’s memories of the Mabuhay Gardens only serves to pump his punk cred in these parts; between 1976 and ’88 that was a hangout for the likes of the Dead Kennedys, Mutants, Avengers, Black Flag, the Damned, Redd Kross, Samhain, Iggy Pop and the Ramones. Amid it all sat the Blasters — never compromising their vision for pure American rock & roll.
This time, at Slim’s, Alvin says that we can expect much of the same: “A solid Blasters set — hard rockin’ and hard drivin’.”
And when this show, and this current tour, is over? Guess what — more touring.
“We’ve got some east coast gigs and gigs around here until the end of the year,” he says. “Staying on the road.”
The Blasters don’t know any other way to survive.
The Blasters with Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, Jesse Dayton,
Saturday, August 17, 8 p.m., at Slim’s, 333 11th St. $25, slimspresents.com.