When Dave and Phil Alvin reunited for the Grammy nominated Common Ground last year, it gave longtime fans of the duo the warm and fuzzies. A collection of Big Bill Broonzy covers was what brought them back together to record their first studio collaboration since the 1980s. At a recent show at Brooklyn’s Bell House, the two of them came together on stage and played their hearts out to a room full of fans young and old. Whether they were Blasters fanatics, or Dave Alvin loyalists, the room was full of love and nostalgia emanating out of each and every person.
Common Ground is poignantly titled, as the Alvin brothers have no doubt been through a lot together. Their rich history and complex relationship – both musically and personally – is evident in their passionate playing. Dave has assumed the role of the lone cowboy and storyteller, while Phil embodies the stoic rock star. Along with their killer backing band (with a lady drummer, no less!), the two of them seemed to be having the best time, simultaneously gushing over and teasing each other.
Big Bill Broonzy is a prolific blues artist from the 1920s and 1930s, and his songs are such a natural fit for Dave’s low growl and Phil’s impassioned wail. Broonzy’s simple arrangements are the ideal setting for the Alvin brothers to harmonize and call-and-response. Songs like “All By Myself”, “I Feel So Good” and “Stuff They Call Money” are equal parts hysterical and heartbreaking, and with Phil on the harmonica, they’re vibrant and bright.
“Stuff They Call Money” is what Dave refers to as “existentialist blues”, and the audience lapped it up as the brothers inserted their own names into the lyrics. “Truckin’ Little Woman” was accompanied by stories of their youth and early influences (including each other) as told by Dave. It’s clear he idolizes his big brother Phil, and he continued to make that love known throughout the show, crediting Phil as the most underrated singer with a “majestic Yosemite Valley of a voice”, and his earliest role model. “He was born with it,” says Dave, before expressing his disbelief at the first time he heard Phil “interpret his songs like the artist he is.” Dave is honored to write for Phil and always has been.
Their fabulous rapport benefits greatly from Dave’s emcee-ing and Phil’s comedic timing and facial expressions. Phil, with his endless, spindly fingers, is a wonder. Nearly losing his life only a few years ago, he leaves it all on the stage, giving two hundred percent, especially on the standout cover of the 1950s James Brown classic “Please, Please, Please”.
Dedicating many songs to their many mentors over the years, Dave and Phil are two guys who never forget where they’ve come from and who will continue to pay tribute to the artist that have moved them. Their boisterous encore of “Marie, Marie” had an exhausted weeknight audience on their feet, grooving enthusiastically. Even as they age, the Alvin brothers still got it.