Close Enough
Folk, Blues, Roots, Alternative Country, etc....
Dwight Thurston listens to Dave Alvin and Donna The Buffalo

 

cd cover Dave Alvin
Blackjack David
Hightone
 
The Blasters
American Music
Hightone
 
Whether you're coming from a musical perspective or a historical one, it's pretty hard to talk about American Roots music without Dave Alvin's name coming up. He, his brother Phil, and the rest of the Blasters were way ahead of the curve in the roots revival with their 1980 debut American Music. Only two thousand copies of the LP were pressed, and collectors have likely done everything short of killing to obtain a copy. In keeping with their commitment to American roots music, Hightone Records reissued this seminal document of American roots last fall. The best description of American Music comes in the recording's title track:

We got the Louisiana boogie
And the Delta blues
We got country, swing
And rockabilly too
We got jazz, country-western
And Chicago blues

The Blasters' garage band approach to this stuff is rough, energetic, infectious, and inspired. The band played and recorded for two days in Rollin' Rock Ronny Weiser's garage/recording studio. The original thirteen tracks include five originals by Dave Alvin, including his forward-looking "Barn Burning," here given an uptempo rockabilly treatment, very different from Dave's own slower, mysterious, insinuatingly evil takes of recent years. The other two band originals are "She ain't got the Beat," cowritten by Dave and Phil Alvin, and Phil's country/western "She's Gone Away." There are six bonus tracks, including Howlin' Wolf's "So Glad," and Magic Sam's "21 Days in Jail." With Phil Alvin on vocals and acoustic guitar, Dave Alvin on a borrowed Stratocaster, John Bazz on electric bass, and Bill Bateman on drums, the Blasters laid down their first recorded tracks. American Music is essential listening for lovers these types of American roots music.
 
Dave Alvin, the greenhorn in the band when American Music was recorded, turned out to be the Blaster's most enduring and individual talent. His 1987 solo debut Romeo's Escape (lately reissued by Razor & Tie) showed a talent already way beyond the category of "promising." Songs like "Border Radio," "Fourth of July," "Long White Cadillac," and "Every Night About this Time" were bursting with musical and poetic brilliance. Alvin's 1994 King of California, his stripped-down, folk-country recording, showed his introspective songwriter side, and a voice that was becoming more and more expressive. In 1996 Alvin and his band The Guilty Men cut Interstate City, a live album from Austin's Continental Club. Interstate City had the revved-up energy of the Continental Club to appeal to his rock & roll fans, but the album did not hide his poetic brilliance at depicting America's Highway dream/nightmare, obsession/psychosis. Interstate City's title track says it better than it's ever been said. The ex-lover/criminal, the state trooper, the woman behind bulletproof glass at the motel desk, and the ex-lover/topless dancer all have a "job" to do in America's "Interstate City" it's all just a job, finally, isn't it.
 
Blackjack David continues his work on that theme of the American highway, escape, moving on to the next town, and hope that a change of scene can bring a different life. The traditional ballad of the title track (the only non-original song on the recording) is brilliantly chosen, right down to its variant title instead of the more common "Gypsy Davy," or "Blackjack Davy." The words Alvin uses in his rendition are variants that downplay the possible "negative" connotations of "gypsy" life, and suggest that Blackjack David's accommodation with the impermanence of itinerant living really works that he may be the one character in this recording's cast who really knows how to live with and on the road. The thematic close of Blackjack David, "From a Kitchen Table," shows a man at the other end of the spectrum of possibility:
 
And I still work the same job
Still live with my mom for free
And ever since the old man passed on
It just got harder to leave

Put this song right alongside John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" as an expression of the gnawing uneasiness of stuck, small-town living. In between these two bookends and the epilog "Tall Trees" are eight story songs that rank among Alvin's best. The chorus of the anthemic "Abilene" soars with expansive harmonium lines that render the words as larger than life:
 
Abilene, Abilene
There's a town ahead that
You've never seen
Maybe it's better if you
Head off there and try to
Forget everything
 
"New Highway" follows with humor bubbling in its jug band blues sound, and casting its goofy sunshine backward on "Abilene." "California Snow," cowritten with Tom Russell, follows with the story of a border patrolman whose everyday work shows a darker side to California's Promised Land.
 
Blackjack David's personnel include Alvin's producer Greg Leisz on various guitars, including slide and pedal steel, also on mandolin, Dobro, mandola, and banjo. There are two Guilty Men touring band regulars, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks and bassist Gregory Boaz. Dillon O'Brian plays harmonium on several tracks. With Blackjack David, Dave Alvin offers up another irresistible batch of song-stories to add to the Great American Music. Take 'em all, and rock, stomp, sway, and listen listen hard. First locate the repeat button on your CD player, you're going to need it. This is one of Dave Alvin's and 1998's best releases.


cd cover Donna the Buffalo
Rockin' in the Weary Land
Sugar Hill (www.donnathebuffalo.com/)

It's a mystery: there's no Donna, and no Buffalo. It's about the Big Smile, Big Love, the Big Groove, and the Big Dance. It's equal parts rock & roll and rockin' in the everlasting arms. Rockin' in the Weary Land is Zero Gravity, Zen Groove, Zydeco Gospel, Reggae Rock & Roll. With Tara Nevins of the disbanded Heartbeats Rhythm Quartet now devoting her full musical attention to the group Donna the Buffalo, the fun is still only a heartbeat away. The members of the band are all fine old-time fiddlers who met each other at fiddle festivals and contests. They are: Jeb Puryear, electric guitar and vocals; Tara Nevins, electric fiddle, accordion, acoustic guitar, rubboard, tambourine, and vocals; Jim Miller, electric & acoustic guitar, and vocals; Joe Thrift, Lowrey & Hammond organs, synthesizers, Wurlitzer piano, rubboard, and vocals; Jed Greenberg, bass and vocals; and Tom Gilbert, drums.

With musical roots in zydeco, rock & roll, old-time, and reggae, this New York State sextet churns out a delicious melange that will delight fans of The Heartbeats, The Health and Happiness Show's Tonic (Bar-None Records), and The Deighton Family's squeezy-wheezy music. Where Donna the Buffalo's music differs most from the above is in its consistent cosmic and personal optimism. The lyrics of the band's original music (written by Tara Nevins and guitarist, vocalist Jeb Puryear) make a quick and emphatic leap from personal to universal in most of the songs something that could be a serious problem for writers who don't wrap their music in infectious dance beats and rhythmic grooves. The opening lines of "Tides of Time," the accordion-driven zydeco number that opens Rockin' in the Weary Land, set the stage for the rest of the songs, whose lyrical meanings weave a large web of interconnectedness.


				Some day, I might figure it
				Right now, I'm just livin' it
				Right now, I'm just livin' it	
				Right now, I'm just givin' it
Track two, the upbeat funk, groove-rock "Funky Side," is a vignette of a meditation. Jeb Puryear recklessly throws off lyrics that in other contexts, and without his mischievously laconic delivery, might fall dead on the pavement:
				In the shape I'm in
				You can see for miles
				Shooting through the clouds
				On a magic sound
				I'm here cleaning my connections
				To everything around 
The cosmic humor and the funky groove make for the Big Smile here. It's no surprise that Deadheads are drawn to Donna the Buffalo's sound and meaning (so, it appears, is just about anybody else). John Anderson's country song "Seminole Wind" rolls powerfully along over an insistent country-rock beat. It's a song that's been covered well by quite a few, but never quite like this. This is the one I'll consider definitive, unless (unlikely prospect) somebody someday manages to surpass Donna's take. If the lyrics quoted here are throwing up red flags and fears of new-age foolery, burn the flags, it just ain't so. Rockin' in the Weary Land is clear-eyed, time-tested, genuine balm for the soul. The music on Rockin' in the Weary Land is worth a hundred self-help books, and you can laugh and dance to it! - Dwight Thurston


Read the previous edition

Dwight Thurston hosts an American Roots music program called "In the Weeds" on Fridays from 1-4:00pm on WWUH-FM 91.3, West Hartford. The "Blue Monday" blues show airs Monday nights from 9-midnight. Folk and roots music shows air from 6-9am on weekdays, as well as "UH Radio Bluegrass" on Saturday from 9:00am to 1:00pm. WWUH is also available in realaudio in real time on the Worldwide Web at http://uhavax.hartford.edu/~wwuh/wwuhreal.html. Responses to this column are welcome at dwight.w.thurston@snet.net

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Copyright 1998 Dwight Thurston and RootsWorld.