Dave Alvin Combs Archives for Generous Feast of Rare and Unreleased Recordings on “Old Guitar” (ALBUM REVIEW)

With time on his hands, like so many musicians, who cannot tour during this pandemic, Dave Alvin reached into his archives for a slew of tracks that for whatever reason, were never released. Rather unbelievably, this is Alvin’s first album of solo material in 11 years. Now we can enjoy this feast of terrific recordings just in time for that time of year when we sit down for the literal grand feast. Produced by Alvin, From An Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings, the 16-song collection offers a mix of acoustic blues and ballads to electric bar room blues to folk and country/rock, a great representation of Alvin’s many endearing styles from one of the best songwriters and energetic guitarists of our time.  Featuring songs recorded over the years for his own records and tribute albums, “the majority were recorded for no other reason at all than the sheer kicks of going into a recording studio to make some joyous noise with musicians and singers that I love and admire,” offers Alvin, in his typical modest demeanor.

The album includes originals as well songs written by Alvin’s dear friends like Peter Case, Bill Morrissey, and Chris Smither, and heroes like Willie Dixon, Bob Dylan, Earl Hooker, Doug Sahm, Lil’ Hardin Armstrong, Marty Robbins, and Bo Carter. There are also contributions from dearly departed comrades like Chris Gaffney, Amy Farris, and Bobby Lloyd Hicks and from old Blasters pals such as Gene Taylor along with various members of The Guilty Men/Women/Ones.

“If I had a few extra bucks in my pocket, I’d book a day in the studio, call some old (or new) friends, comrades and co-conspirators to join me and see what would happen,” notes Alvin, “no pressure, no expectations, just making music for the transcendental thrill of, well, making music.” Some of the brilliant accompanists joining Alvin in-studio include Greg Leisz, Cindy Cashdollar, Bob Glaub, Don Heffington, Christy McWilson, Danny Ott, Dale Spalding, and Cindy Wasserman

Alvin goes on to say, “I consider myself extremely lucky to have had such a stellar collection of musicians to make some noise with, and to say that I’m proud of the performances on this release would be a gigantic understatement,” And, yeah, of course, I played beat up, old guitars on all the songs… These recordings may be rare, unreleased, or little heard, but I’m very proud of them, and they hold a very special, warm place in my heart. Just like my old guitars.”

Alvin kicks off with Smither’s “Link of Chain,” one of the few Alvin songs (maybe the only one) this writer recalls where he plays piano. He follows with a slowed tempo version of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” (issued as a single) offering these comments, “When UNCUT magazine asked me to record “Highway 61” for their Bob Dylan tribute CD insert, I was scared to death,” says Alvin. “Not only is it impossible to do a better version of this song than Dylan had already done, but it would be pretty damn hard to come anywhere close to doing a version as good as Johnny Winters’ classic cover. Knowing this, I still figured, ‘what the hell.’ I called the musicians, figured out an arrangement somewhere between Mose Allison and Little Milton, plugged in my guitar, and went for it. The guys and I had an absolute blast reimagining this version of Mr. Dylan’s classic, …” Those musicians include longtime Alvin collaborators Greg Leisz on guitar, Gregory Boaz on bass, and Don Heffington on drums.

“Variations on Earl Hooker’s Guitar Rhumba” features Gaffney on accordion as Alvin plays stinging electric guitar. “. A standout track is “Amanda,” made famous by Waylon Jennings and sung here in duet with Gaffney who plays accordion with Nashville stalwarts Chuck Mead (acoustic guitar), Mike Daly (pedal steel) and Dave Roe (bass) helping out along with Leisz and Heffington. Due to the instrumental prowess of these players, it’s arguably better than Waylon’s mega hit.  “Albuquerque,” written by Link Davis is an opportunity to rock out. “Perdido Street Blues,” the instrumental written by Lil Hardin Armstrong, features Alvin on a 1934 National Steel Doulian guitar with Leisz on lap steel and a wonderful ragtime piano solo from Gene Taylor. Alvin covers Mickey Newbury’s “Mobile Blue” with the original Guilty Men lineup comprising guitarist Rick Shea ( check out his wonderful new album Love & Desperation, issued last month and covered on these pages), drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks, pianist Joe Terry, bassist Boaz and fiddler Brantley Kearns. Bill Frisell provides the backwards guitar intro. 

.The Interpretation of Peter Case’s “On the Way Downtown” also features Alvin and Gaffney singing together backed by the late Amy Farris’ lilting violin and Shea on mandolin and steel guitar along with elegant piano from Wyman Reese. The Guilty Ones are joined by Cindy Wasserman for lovely harmonies on the especially meaningful Bill Morrissey’s “Inside.”(issued as a single)  Alvin comments, The late, brilliant songwriter Bill Morrissey was a very close and treasured friend of mine, offers Alvin. “I was also honored to play lead guitar on his last album before his untimely death in 2011. We actually got to be close pals years before because he approached me one day claiming that a song of mine, “Bus Station,” was a rip off of his beautiful composition, “Inside.” I just laughed and said, ‘I wrote Bus Station in 1982. What year did you write Inside?’ Bill started giggling in his charming way and then said, ‘Hmm. I wrote “Inside” much later than that so I guess I ripped you off.’ We were tight comrades ever since. After Bill’s passing I started performing “Inside” at some of my shows and eventually went into the studio to record my version with my band, The Guilty Ones. I wanted to pay tribute to Bill and his amazing talents as a songwriter by recording his bittersweet ballad that cemented our friendship forever.“

Alvin again plays the 1934 National steel in duet with string master Cindy Cashdollar on dobro for “Krazy and Ignatz,” another especially outstanding track. He never strays far from the blues so it’s not surprising to find the Willie Dixon cover, “Peace,” (issued as a single) punctuated by Chris Miller’s slide guitar and Dale Spalding’s blues harp. As one of the Americana genre’s most versatile artists, he then follows with classic country, delivering Marty Robbins’ “Man Walks Among Us,” featuring Shea on harmony vocals and Leisz on both pedal steel and electric.  

Longtime admirers realize that Alvin with punk rock, blues and searing rock n’ roll in his repertoire is as equally capable of blasting away at ear-splitting volume as he is delivering tunes with a tender touch as evidenced by the Robbins’ take while his own “Beautiful City ‘Cross the River”  and the blistering closer “Signal Hill Blues” represent the former rave-up style. That tune and Mississippi Sheiks’ Bo Carter’s blues shuffle “Who’s Been Here” feature longtime collaborator Christy McWilson on harmony vocals, the latter in call and response fashion. In between we have Doug Sahm’s “Dynamite Woman,” which, ironically doesn’t have an accordion but does have sturdy guitar work from Danny Ott on electric and on harmony vocals as well as Leisz’s perky pedal steel. Heffington’s jaw harp is in closing for that special touch.

These tunes inexplicably were never issued, but for the variety and the breadth of talented musicians aboard, this could well be one of Alvin’s best. It’s a “must-have” for Alvin fans and for those who never acquainted themselves with Alvin’s versatile musical approach, (however few they may be) this makes one fine introduction.


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