& & DAVE ALVIN & & is a songwriter. His rough-hewn baritone is expressive but certainly won't win him any Grammy Awards. And his guitar playing, while impressive, probably won't land him in the rock god pantheon. But this guy can pen a decent song. And in an age when antiseptic vocals and mindless fretboard acrobatics grab all the ooos and ahhhs, it's refreshing to run into a performer that actually still takes pride in the craft of writing verse. He performs with another excellent songwriter, Peter Case, at The Met on Wednesday.
Dave Alvin's love of songwriting and his affection for traditional American music -- country, folk, R & amp;B and rock and roll -- has been evident since he first appeared on the music scene as the guitarist and songwriter for the Blasters, a band he formed with his brother Phil in 1980.
On his new album, Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land, Alvin has opted to bow out of the songwriting game temporarily, just long enough to try his formidable interpretive talents on a collection of traditional folk songs that speak to the American soul. These are songs that have been sung around campfires, in factories, in the trenches and in honky tonks longer than anyone now living can remember.
"I wanted to do it years ago, but I put it off," Alvin says during a recent "on the road" phone interview. "I just like the old songs, you know. A lot of them are about people on the cusp of two worlds, caught between the pre-industrial past and the industrial revolution. That stuff has had a big influence on me. But I also wanted to make some points about American music and how it's all interconnected. How it all grew up together."
Instead of attempting some sort of Smithsonian-esque archiving of timeless folk standards like "Shenandoah" or "Walk Right In," Alvin managed to infuse the songs with new life through a little mixing and matching.
"One thing I did on the record was drastically rearrange a lot of the songs. 'Shenandoah,' for example, isn't done as a traditional folk song, it's more like an R & amp;B number. 'Don't Let Your Deal Go Down,' which is mainly known as a bluegrass song, I did as Chicago blues, a la Muddy Waters."
Alvin digresses for a moment as his van passes through the Appalachian Range in Virginia.
"We just crossed over the Shenandoah River," he says savoring the irony. "There she is."
After an almost reverent pause, he continues.
"I think we take our musical heritage for granted. You know, we're a country that is really all about the new, the next. And so there's very little looking back. I think that's a shame. We don't know our own history, whether it's cultural history, musical history, history history. Whatever it is, we don't know it. And because of that, we make a lot of the same mistakes over and over again. I'm sure you could live a happy life without a sense of place and a sense of history. It isn't mandatory. But I think most of your better artists, whether they're writers or painters or whatever, tend to have a concept of that."
Alvin's first recording band, the Blasters formed in L.A. during the heady days following the punk revolution. The group's sound was a bracing mix of American roots -- rockabilly, R & amp;B and rock 'n' roll -- set to accelerated tempos. But after five years, a trio of well-received albums and national success, the band succumbed to infighting.
"It just wasn't fun anymore," he says. "My brother and I were always fighting -- well, the whole band was always fighting. We were guys that all grew up together, and for a long time that held us together and made us play great. But then issues about what direction the band was going to go in and that kind of stuff just made it impossible to continue."
The day after Alvin handed the Blasters his resignation, he found himself discussing career options with a couple of his peers in the L.A. scene, John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X.
"I gave my notice in Montreal after a gig and then flew to New York to do a dinner show. At the dinner show John and Exene asked me if I wanted to join X, and I was like: 'You got it.' "
He stayed with X for about a year and a half and penned the wonderfully epic "4th of July," which remains one of the strongest tunes in the band's repertoire. He struck out on his own in 1987 and since then has charted a singular, very personal course. It's obvious that Alvin relishes his creative freedom and his contributions to this country's musical tradition.
"The main thing I've tried to do is use all the colors of the American musical palette. And I also think that as you get older, you try for timelessness. When you're young, you really just want to bash and have a good time. As you get older, you can still do that but at the same time you want to do something that's connected to the past and the present and the future. That's one of the reasons I did this record. Those kind of songs tend to have a lasting quality about them, and a lot of pop music doesn't. For musicians, the only thing you can do is do what you do, and sometimes people catch on and sometimes they don't. You never know unless you're going to just boldly sell out. You just do what you do and hope that it sticks."
& & & lt;i & Dave Alvin performs with fellow singer/songwriter Peter Case (formerly of the the Plimsouls) at The Met on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $15; $10 for students and seniors. Call: 325-SEAT. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &
& & Oh Mama & & & &
Cherri Croff and her husband/collaborator, Mila have been playing music together for more than 12 years and are probably best known as members of the popular local reggae band, Jammin Shaman. These days, the duo is known as & & MAD MAMA MOON & & , and they'll be performing their eclectic original songs at the Shop on Thursday.
After their band affiliations dissolved a few years ago, the couple retreated to their Newport area home to start a family. During the performing hiatus, Mila continued to write, record solo material and collect stringed acoustic instruments. But it was only a matter of time before the two would team up and once again share their common musical and life experiences with a live audience.
"This year, we finally got the duo thing together," says Mila. "Before, we were always playing with bands, so I'd play my Strat or maybe a lap steel or something. But I have a wall full of acoustic instruments that I've been dying to use. Now, I can write music on them and there's somebody here who I know can sing the stuff. We know each other so well musically, and music has always been magic for us. And it still is."
Mad Mama Moon has been performing for the past six months with Mila as the principal songwriter and main instrumentalist and Cherri on vocals and percussion. In addition to the guitar, Mila's battery of stringed instruments includes tenor banjo, dulcimer, eight-string Hawaiian steel guitar and mandolin. The couple record in their cabin in the woods near Newport, Wash., in a studio they've playfully dubbed Tooloose Lotec. They released their first CD in July.
The songs on the disc are deeply lyrical, melodious and frequently haunting. They draw on an impressive range of musical styles, embracing ancient and traditional forms from around the world including Hawaiian, reggae, Middle Eastern and Celtic. Mila explains the driving force behind the music.
"Without trying to sound too new agey or anything, the ideas behind what we're trying to do are positive, awareness-oriented and to us, mystical. Mystical in a surrealistic, kind of poetic way. Music can be used as a global language to sort of disarm the differences and promote understanding. You realize it's a language that everybody speaks, and it makes the whole humanity-as-one thing more accessible. Lyrically, our songs are mystical in the sense of painting pictures of the not quite definable, but they're also about common human experiences. Some of our stuff is just about our children."
"Most of our music is based on compassion," continues Cherri. "The experience of raising children stretches you wide open. It's just so huge. Not that we don't write about the dark side, because I think it's important to be in touch with the shadow. But most of our stuff really is just a reminder of those sweet, magic things."
Child rearing, death and spirituality are the common threads that hold Mad Mama Moon's gentle ballads together. They are themes that, like much of the duo's music, are universally human and reach us at a very primal, almost subconscious, level.
"One of our new songs is done on the mandolin," explains Mila, "with Cherri playing finger cymbals in kind of a gypsy style. Well, the idea of mandolins playing gypsy music with finger cymbals is pretty old. So when you're using that musical texture, you're drawing on a long-term memory of a lot of people on the planet. You're tapping in to something that is very wordless."
"Our music definitely has its origins in the ancient," adds Cherri. "There's that feeling that this has been done before."
& & & lt;i & Mad Mama Moon plays at the Shop on Thursday, Nov. 2, at 7 pm. Cover: $5. Call: 534-1647. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &