When he picked up the phone to chat with The Bulletin last week, Dave Alvin was at home in one of the nice parts of Los Angeles after a few weeks on the road with a powerful band.
Job number one: Feed the cats.
Job two: Talk to this darn journalist.
And job three: “Retool,” Alvin said in his coarse, canyon-deep voice. “I've been out all summer playing electric and loud and blowing up amplifiers, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that.”
Alvin's next gig? This weekend at the Sisters Folk Festival, where the crowds are open-minded, but blown amps might be crossing the line. Instead, he'll play two slightly less explosive sets with his trio, one tonight on the main stage and one Saturday night at Sisters Art Works.
For Alvin, 55, the trip to Sisters is the next stop on a tour that has lasted three decades, from his founding role with alt-country forerunners The Blasters to his stint in the cult-fave punk band X to a long, diverse and Grammy-winning solo career as one of the foremost creators of American roots music.
If the road never ends, well, that's OK with Alvin, who says he still gets stage fright after 30 years of performing.
“I like to play as much as possible,” he said. “To me, playing music live is what I love.”
He continued: “My heroes were all about playing live. The old blues singers: Big Joe Turner, Lightning Hopkins, people like that, (they) played till they died. And people conjecture about why Bob Dylan is always touring and it's like, well, what else are you supposed to do? When you're playing live and you get that (interaction) with the audience, that is my religion. That's my church.”
Which would make Alvin's songbook the hymnal. Long a master fusionist of rock, country, rockabilly, Tex-Mex and blues music, Alvin's new album “Eleven Eleven” crackles with an energy untapped on his previous, more acoustically inclined records.
Sharp guitar licks pierce the low rumble of “Harlan County Line.” The beautifully twangy “Black Rose of Texas” — written for Alvin's friend Amy Farris, who died in 2009 — gives Alvin ample room to croon.
The gentle accordion of “No Worries Mija” sends the album south of the border for a few minutes, while “Murrieta's Head” and “Manzanita” (a duet with Christy McWilson) are products of myriad highway miles. (“Eleven Eleven” is the first record Alvin has ever written on the road.)
And then there's the skronky blues jam “What's Up With Your Brother?” featuring the vocals of Alvin's brother and former Blasters band mate Phil. The Alvins' relationship was famously combative in the old days and distant since, and the song is their first recorded material together since they shared a band.
Time marches on, Dave Alvin said, and it was time for a change.
“In my solo career, I've kind of distanced myself ... not so much from the fact that I was in (The Blasters), but just the band itself,” he said. “There were probably good reasons for that and probably bad reasons for that.
“(But) it's gotten to the point where we've all had family and close friends pass away and all that, so we're not immortal,” he continued. “It's kind of like, well, if I wanna have my brother on the (record), dammit I'll put him on.”
The song is a blast, and it ends with what sounds like a scripted argument between the brothers.
There was no script, Dave said.
“Of course we went right back to arguing over words,” he said. “It should be ‘but' not ‘the'!”
Long-simmering sibling rivalry aside, Alvin has come to understand and appreciate his good fortune.
“I'm really lucky. I have a lot of friends that can't play music anymore for a variety of reasons and I still can, so the older I get the more and more lucky I realize I am,” he said. “I've been really lucky throughout my career in that I've managed to somehow survive doing this for a long period of time.”
And in Alvin's business, a headstrong attitude — honed by 30 years of skeptical club owners, misguided record labels and the like — is a survival skill.
“You develop a pretty good stubborn streak,” he said. “Nobody's gonna tell me that I can't make a racket.”