When it comes to rock'n'roll's famous feuding brothers, the Blasters' Phil and Dave Alvin rank right up there with the Kinks' Ray and Dave Davies and Oasis's Noel and Liam Gallagher. The Alvins, however, patched up their differences following Phil's near death from a lung infection in 2012. Younger brother Dave suggested they make a duo record together by focusing on one of the few things they've never fought about: Big Bill Broonzy.
Broonzy, the legendary Arkansas/Chicago bluesman who recorded from the 1920s through the 1950s, wrote all 12 songs on the first-ever Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin album, "Common Ground." And the brothers, backed by Dave's regular road band, the Guilty Ones, played eight of those songs at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis Wednesday night.
"The one thing that my brother Phil and I agree on," Dave said, and as he paused, the audience broke into laughter. He added, "That's right: treasure this moment. We agree that when Big Bill Broonzy recorded this song in 1929 he may or may not have made the first rock'n'roll record but he certainly made the first rockabilly record and guaranteed Bill Kirchen a livelihood."
The song was 'How You Want It Done,' and Phil belted out the twangy, bawdy12-bar blues in that steely high tenor, undiminished by his recent brush with death. He moved a bit stiffly in his black, pearl-snap shirt, but when he opened his mouth he still sounded like one of rock'n'roll’s greatest vocalists. The electric guitars of Dave Alvin and Chris Miller were snapping at his heels like hound dogs, but Phil was always two steps ahead of the pack.
Dave explained that his brother was only 12 when he got harmonica lessons from Sonny Terry, and Phil showed off the results on Broonzy's 'Key to the Highway.' Dave sang Broonzy’s folkloric story song, 'Southern Flood Blues,' and the brothers shared the lead vocals on Broonzy's income-inequality song, ‘The Stuff They Call Money,’ and shared acoustic-guitar leads on Broonzy's ragtime instrumental, 'Saturday Night Rub.'
In addition to the Broonzy numbers, the Alvins sang tunes by Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Willie Johnson, Johnny Ace, Leiber & Stoller, and Dave Alvin (five from his solo albums, three from the Blasters' albums). But the most surprising selection of the night was 'Please, Please, Please,' James Brown’s first-ever hit single from 1956. As Phil’s spellbinding R&B-ballad vocal faded out, Dave told the story of he and his brother buying that 45 for a quarter as junior-high students at the Paramount Swap Meet in southern California in the early '60s.
Dave said he hoped that someday in the future some kids would buy the Blasters' first single for a quarter at a swap meet and be as inspired as he and Phil were by Brown. When the quintet charged into that song, 'Marie, Marie,' Dave's wish seemed likely to come true.