At The Birchmere recently, Dave Alvin addressed the matter of exactly what kind of music he and Jimmie Dale Gilmore have been making all these years, mentioning several trendy and not-so-trendy terms: contemporary traditional folk, traditional contemporary folk, cowpunk, and nuevo folk were a few of them.
The catch-all term, he suggested, was “Americana, but what we really are,” he said, “is just a little old R&B band.” And the next song, Lloyd Price’s “Good Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” sung by Gilmore, demonstrated that.
Alvin and Gilmore have both been making music for a long time — “decades,” as Alvin said at The Birchmere on August 16. Born in 1958 in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey, Alvin formed the Blasters with his older brother Phil in the late ’70s; “I’m an old blues blaster,” he sang in the first song of the set, “From Downey to Lubbock.” Phil sang lead; Dave played guitar and wrote most of the songs.
As the ’80s moved on, things became contentious between the Alvin brothers, and Dave left the band. For a time, he joined the Los Angeles punk band X, replacing Billy Zoom on lead guitar. In addition to his work with the Blasters and X, he also played with another punk band, The Flesh Eaters. In the late ’80s, he went solo, which is how he’s spent most of his career since, although he’s also put together the Third Mind, a psychedelic rock group.
Hailing from West Texas, Jimmie Dale Gilmore was part of the progressive country scene that emerged there. In the early ’70s, he recorded an album with fellow singer-songwriters Joe Ely and Butch Hancock as The Flatlanders; as he sang in that first song, “I’m an old Flatlander.” After this record went nowhere commercially, Jimmie Dale went off the map for quite some time, dropping out of the music business to pursue his interests in Eastern mysticism and metaphysics. He finally emerged as a solo artist at the end of the ’80s. In addition to his music career, Gilmore has also acted in a few movies, most notably as Smokey, an aging bowler, in the Coen Brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski.
The Birchmere sets included songs the two have recorded together, as well as major numbers from both of their individual catalogs. After starting the set with “From Downey To Lubbock,” on which both men sang, Jimmie Dale took over for the next number, his song “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown.” It’s an old song that’s been around quite a while, since the early ’70s, and has become a classic of the Americana genre; it was also recorded by his sometime collaborator Joe Ely.
Watch Jimmie Dale Gilmore perform “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” live with Burch Hancock for Live from Norfolk Street via YouTube:
“Johnny Ace Is Dead,” which featured Dave on vocals, was up next. It’s a classic R&B tune about a tragic figure of the genre, who died when a game of Russian Roulette went badly for him. After “Miss Clawdy,” Dave and Jimmie introduced the crowd to a new song that will appear on their forthcoming second album. It was cowritten by Dave, Terry Allen, and Terry’s wife, Jo Ellen. Jimmie Dale noted, “This is the only song Terry’s written that isn’t sarcastic.”
Early in his career, Gilmore sojourned to Los Angeles, where he frequently attended shows at a folk club, The Ashgrove, long since gone. Alvin also went there frequently; the club shaped their shared interests in traditional folk and blues. In 2018, the released an album together, From Downey to Lubbock.
In the early ’80s, The Blasters were at the center of the Los Angeles roots rock scene. They helped break a number of other artists and bands, like Los Lobos and Dwight Yoakam, the latter of whom recorded their song, “Long White Cadillac.” As Dave told the audience, he wrote it “for my big, beautiful, loudmouth brother Phil.” He copped to not singing the tune as well as either Dwight or Phil, but the performance was still captivating, and it’s one hell of a great song.
“I have a weird relationship with this song,” Jimmie Dale said, introducing “My Mind’s Got A Mind of Its Own.” While it’s one of his “best songs,” it was actually written by his fellow Flatlander and prolific songwriter Butch Hancock. (Quite sadly, basically none of Hancock’s catalogue, some of which is absolutely wonderful, is available on streaming, and it’s not easy to find physical copies of the records.)
Alvin has a sharp wit and easy stage presence, and he often had the audience cracking up at his banter, as he did when introduced “Billy The Kid and Geronimo” as “an old folk song I wrote.” Jimmie Dale wrote “Borderland” for his wife, Janet, who was in the audience, along with his oldest daughter and his two oldest granddaughters. He made the gentle but firm point that if what you think about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans is “what you see on Fox News,” you’re getting a biased, inaccurate picture, and the truth is something very different. Neither Alvin nor Gilmore is a flamethrower, but they’re firmly in the progressive camp.
I mentioned “Fourth of July” earlier. It’s a regular part of Dave’s live sets, and Wednesday night was so exception. “I wrote it about my hometown,” he said, “and maybe your hometown, too.” Another one of the compositions from his solo years, “Dry River,” also made it into the set.
Watch the official music video for “Downey to Lubbock” by Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore on YouTube:
On their album together, Alvin and Gilmore recorded the classic “flower power” song “Get Together.” They brought openers Dead Rock West on stage to join them for that number, and then Jimmie Dale sang “Dallas” to close the main set. The remarkable thing about “Dallas,” another song that hearkens back to his Flatlander years, is that he wrote without ever having been to that city.
The encore started with an old R&B classic “Bring It On Home to Me.” Introducing “Marie, Marie,” another old Blasters tune, David dedicated it to his longtime manager, Shelly Heber, who passed away a week and a half ago, and to his brother Phil, who’s been dealing with some major health issues; Jimmie Dale sang it. The night ended with a reprise of “From Downey to Lubbock.”
Dave admitted to not being the most gifted singer, but his guitar work, I’m pleased to say, is as dynamic and exciting as it’s ever been. In the last few years, he battled cancer, and I’d heard that, for a time, he was experiencing some loss of feeling in his hands. From what I could tell Wednesday night, he’s recovered, at least well enough that there’s no apparent loss of skill in his playing. And even at 78 years old, Jimmie Dale still sings like an angel. They put in a full night’s work at The Birchmere, and the audience got two hours of fantastic music.