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Dave Alvin 

Public Domain
(HighTone)

Wednesday, Aug 9 2000
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Growing up in the shadow of Disneyland in Downey, Calif., future Blasters Dave and Phil Alvin found their own magic kingdom at thrift stores and swap meets, rifling through stacks of out-of-print blues and country records. Their early finds sparked a lifelong interest in traditional music; Public Domain is a collection of those rare sides as interpreted by Dave. These are the songs that literally belong to all of us -- the ones we remember but don't always know where from, unless we grew up in homes where folk music was present. Some are more familiar than others, but Alvin's gone to the mother lode and pulled out some winners.

As a brilliant California-centric songwriter in his own right, Dave Alvin's own contributions to the contemporary Americana canon are top flight -- from Blasters songs like "Marie Marie," "So Long Baby Bye Bye," and "Border Radio" to his solo efforts "Long White Cadillac" (covered by Dwight Yoakam), "Fourth of July" (popularized by X), and "Every Night About This Time," which sounded like a standard the minute he recorded it. Clearly, Public Domain is a labor of love -- payback time to the songs that raised him.

The set begins with "Shenandoah," a song so widely covered that everyone from folk to opera singers has given it a go. Alvin opts for an R&B treatment along the lines of the Alabama country soul of Eddie Hinton or the more mainstream Percy Sledge; it's a deep groove guided by organ and guitar but with a dramatic vocal performance at its core. In "Walk Right In," Alvin resuscitates a song that was mired in old-fashioned stridency during the early '60s folk revival and gives it new life as a blues tune. Blind Willie McTell's story of a gambling gal, "Delia," which was recently recorded by Bob Dylan on World Gone Wrong, is treated with a nice, light finger-pickin' touch. Dating back to the '20s, "Maggie Campbell" perfectly suits Alvin's stompin' roadhouse band, the Guilty Men. African-American folk songs like "Mama Ain't Long for the Day," "Sign of Judgment," and "Railroad Bill" are all treated with the tender hands of a scholar and master craftsman. After a lifetime of study, it wouldn't be overstating the case to proclaim that Alvin has earned his status as an American treasure, much like the songs he's helped keep alive.

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Denise Sullivan

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