Touring behind their new album, From Downey to Lubbock — currently #1 on the Billboard Blues chart — Americana icons Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore performed Thursday night in front of a packed audience at Alexandria’s Birchmere.
On the title track of the new album, Dave sings, “I’m a wild blues blaster,” referring to the roots-rock band The Blasters, which he co-founded with his older brother Phil serving as lead as lead guitarist and chief songwriter. After leaving The Blasters in 1985, he spent a year as the lead guitarist of the LA-based punk band X. Over the past 30 years, Dave pursued a solo career that earned him a Grammy nomination, published two books of poetry, and acted in TV and film.
On the same track, Jimmie sings, “I’m an old Flatlander,” referring to the legendary alt-country band he formed in the early ’70s with Joe Ely and Butch Hancock. The group’s recordings were barely distributed, and all three went on to establish themselves individually. These early recordings took on nearly mythical status, and in 1991 they were finally reissued as More a Legend than a Band. The Flatlanders have since occasionally played together but have mostly continued pursuing their individual careers. After spending most of the ’70s at an ashram in Colorado studying under the Maharaji, Jimmie established a solo career in Austin in the ’80s, and he has garnered three Grammy nominations. Jimmie has also dabbled in acting, notably appearing as Smokey in The Big Lebowski.
Hopefully, you now have some context for why I was incredibly excited to attend this concert. Dave and Jimmie lived up their individually rich histories. They delivered an evening full of fantastic music and enchanting stories, the kind that only musicians who have been around a good long while and who have a 30-year friendship can tell. Dave and Jimmie’s differences complemented each other perfectly: Dave is a spitfire electric guitar player; Jimmie plays acoustic. Jimmie’s voice is a high, nasal tenor, a more angelic Willie Nelson; Dave’s is a deep, booming bass, like if Sam Elliot could sing.
Listen to From Downey to Lubbock by Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Lubbock on Bandcamp:
Dave and Jimmie’s set covered a wide range of material. Their new album, published by Yep Roc Records in May, is mostly blues covers, they but didn’t play many during the show. They played one old-time blues cover, “Stealin’ Stealin,” by the Memphis Jug Band, and Lloyd Price’s 1952 New Orleans R&B standard, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”
Their set also included “Billy the Kid and Geronimo,” one of two Alvin-penned originals on the new album. Dave explained that that, by his rough estimate, the midpoint of the 1,000 miles between his hometown of Downey, California, and Jimmie’s of Lubbock, Texas, falls in eastern Arizona or western New Mexico. This inspired him to write a song about a fictional meeting between the most famous person from each state.
The evening featured several songs from each artists’ solo and band work. The audience started clapping when they heard the opening notes of Jimmie’s “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown,” and Dave and Jimmie closed out their main set with The Flatlanders’ “Dallas.” From Dave’s catalogue, they played “Johnny Ace Is Dead,” about the popular ’50s R&B singer who took his own life at 25, as well as “Dry River” and “Fourth of July.” During the encore, from Dave’s Blasters days, they played “the only minor zydeco hit written in Downey, California,” “Marie, Marie.”
Dave described two songs that were as “timeless, but timely.” The first was Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee.” On the second, the ’60s classic “Get Together, they were joined by opening duo Dead Rock West on vocals.
Two particularly good stories were told. The first concerned how their mutual friend, the late songwriter Steve Young, had, without lying, convinced each man he’d written the same song, “Silverlake,” for them to record. The punchline was, as Jimmie explained, “Steve had said he’d written the song and wanted me to sing it. He never said he wrote it *for* me.”
Jimmie told the second story while Dave tuned his guitar. Les Paul and Spanish classic guitar virtuoso Andres Ségovia were giving seminars together. During the Q&A at the end of one seminar, an attendee asked, “Mr. Les Paul, I noticed that you tuned your guitar at the beginning of the show and you tuned it between each song. Mr. Segovia only tuned his guitar once. What’s up with that?” Les Paul snarked, “Clearly, Mr. Segovia just doesn’t give a shit.”
Thursday night was especially exciting for me to get to see the second out of three members of the Flatlanders. Although their album is at the top of the Blues charts, Dave and Jimmie’s concert set reflected the diversity of Americana as a genre. It had some blues, some country, some folk — and while Dave and Jimmie looked back to the roots and traditions of American popular music, they do it with a progressive approach, both musically and culturally. This concert was another reminder of what an exciting time this in Americana music.