Bond of Brothers

Dave and Phil Alvin find 'Common Ground' in Big Bill Broonzy

Dave and Phil Alvin
Dave and Phil Alvin

When Dave and Phil Alvin were just kids in Downey, Calif., they already had developed a curiosity about the roots of American music. So when 12-year-old Phil saw a copy of Big Bill Broonzy’s Big Bill’s Blues, he bought it and brought it home.

Broonzy, a key guitarist, singer and writer of (primarily but not exclusively) acoustic Blues and Folk, lived from 1893-1958 and wrote or adapted such classics as “Key to the Highway” and “Just a Dream.” 

“It was a happenstance discovery,” Phil says by phone, in advance of his and Dave’s local tour stop, where they will play songs from their new album of Broonzy interpretations, Common Ground.

“The picture on the album cover was so alluring,” Phil says. “Big Bill was sitting there with a great guitar and his hat on, and he had a sharp suit and cool shoes. And he had a very ingratiating smile. It said Big Bill’s Blues and I liked Blues. It captured me right from the photo, so I brought it home.”

That was the mid-1960s and Dave was two years younger than Phil. But when they played the album, a reissue of songs Broonzy mostly had originally recorded in the 1930s, both fell in love with the music.

“Big Bill was our gateway drug into pre-war Blues,” Dave says during the same phone call. “He was an excellent guide. You start with him and spread outward, eventually working your way to Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson and Skip James.”

Flash forward some 50 years to now. Much has changed. Dave and Phil, driven by their love to play and write American roots music, started The Blasters in 1979. Marked by Phil’s enthusiastic, forceful singing and Dave’s concise, enticing guitar work, the group found immediate success. Dave left in 1986 for a rewarding solo career as a guitarist and plainspoken singer (he won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in the early ’00s), while Phil kept The Blasters active. The brothers rarely recorded together after Dave’s departure; they hadn’t collaborated on a full album until Common Ground.

In 2012, Phil almost died following a sudden illness while en route to Spain for a Blasters engagement.

“Having your mortality flash in front of your face as it did for me in Spain is a pretty heavy thing,” Phil says. “I didn’t know what was going to come of it. When David called and asked if I wanted to do a record, I said sure.”

Dave explains his motive in the proposal: “You eventually recognize you’re not immortal. We’d made records as the Blasters but never as the Alvin brothers, and I thought we should at least make one.”

They chose to go back to an early love — Broonzy — for inspiration. But it’s not a hushed, reverentially faithful recording. Dave plays plenty of his stinging, soaring electric-guitar solos. Both he and Phil also play acoustic guitar, with Phil offering harmonica parts. Both have lead vocals. And there are accompanists. (The current tour is a mix of acoustic and electric, with Dave’s band The Guilty Ones providing support.)

Phil finds Broonzy as influential a vocalist as Dave does a guitarist.

“I loved his voice,” he says. “He had sort of a laid-back urgency that I enjoyed, and I tried to copy his voice. I always felt I had a similar voice to him — even when I was 12. He was very welcoming in his tonality and he pronounced his words well. That was always a big thing for me.”

“Big Bill Broonzy is a good place to show off what we can do musically,” Dave adds. “His songs are so good you can take them in a variety of directions. Some of the songs on (Common Ground) you can’t do without playing a Big Bill Broonzy guitar figure, because it’s the key to the song. But on other songs, ‘Stuff They Call Money’ and ‘Southern Flood Blues,’ our versions have very little to do with the original recording, but they’re in the spirit of Big Bill Broonzy.”

As an example of how prescient the Alvins believe Broonzy to have been, Dave says that “How You Want It Done,” covered on Common Ground, could be called the first Rockabilly record.

“It’s the flat-picking thing,” he says. “He’s playing an almost boogie-woogie, walking-bass part on guitar and, if you add bass and drums, it sounds like it was cut at Sun Records. But he cut it in 1929. To put it simply, his influence is so big I put him up there with Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and the Carter Family. That’s a huge swath of influence for a Folk musician.”

DAVE AND PHIL ALVIN play the Southgate House Revival Wednesday. Tickets/more info here.

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