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Of Hard-Edged Roots Rockers and Masked Men: Dave Alvin w/ Los Straitjackets

March 1, 2010

Back Pages

In Back Pages, Jay shares concert reviews and notes on all matters musical from his personal archives. In this installment, Jay offers a review of  a July 21, 2004 show at Lexington, KY’s The Dame featuring Dave Alvin and Los Straitjackets. Coordinated stage antics and frenzied guitar-work ensued.

Surf rock revivalists Los Straitjackets managed to prove one point early in the quartet’s twangy, energetic opening set: in a world where derivative, shticky, schlockmeisters like Slipknot still hold sway on modern hard rock airwaves, camp and irreverence can be executed with panache and skill–even in sequined wrestling masks. Oh yes, and it can even be a hell of a lot of fun (remember when shows were fun and not always so dark and angsty? Me neither). Other, inferior masked rockers take note: make sure you have the substance to fill out your costumes.

Although the all-instrumental set included inspired covers of the theme music for TVs “The Munsters” and “Batman,” the band’s cohesiveness, enthusiasm, and sense of pacing established them as no mere novelty act. For all their humor, they are true acolytes of the Chuck Berry-influenced school of rhythmic, reverb-laden surf rock that take having fun in the warm California sun seriously. The band’s original material sounded right at home nestled among the covers, owing to their mastery and obvious love of the style. Fans of Jan & Dean, Duane Eddy and the Ventures, and Dick Dale surely find comfort in the group’s capable, heartfelt perpetuation of the form.

Fellow Yep Roc label-mate Dave Alvin (formerly of the Blasters, the Knitters, and X) blends vintage country and blues sounds with the gut-level (or, ahem, lower) impact of garage/punk rock, all of this tied together by emotive, literary singing and song-writing. The two acts complimented each other very well; at times, the show felt like a very specific trip through American music history.

As much as lead guitarist/singer Alvin wants to expand on the legacy of formative influences like Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker, Alvin serves to honor their work:

Holding my guitar / Standing on the stage / Trying to see what ghosts I can raise. / There was Big Joe at night / The Reverend Gary, too / I’d sit at home trying to do what they would do.”

Yet, Alvin would agree that there exists a fine line between love and obsession, and that what secures salvation, whether it is artistic or spiritual, can also be the road to ruin:

I got saved by a habit that’ll finally take its toll.”

His lyrics suggest not merely his own attempt to recreate the evocative atmosphere of his idols, but also how his lifelong devotion to music has been detrimental, both physically–

I’m losing my hair / And I’m losing my teeth / But I’m trying to keep my grip.”

–as well as interpersonally:

She waits for me / When I get home / But things just ain’t the same.”

But….As much as Alvin ruminates on alienation, loss, yearning, the ravages of time, and many of the common themes of blues and rock, he also remains open to the wild-eyed abandon and rowdy fun that the genres also encompass, as on display during the finale number: a collaboration with Los Straitjackets on the Riviera’s “California Sun” (with a wink and a nod to the Ramones) and the searing pedal steel of “East Virginia Blues.”

Like any solid player rooted in the blues, he knows how to speak of his trials and tribulations through his guitar, and he does so eloquently; he made his arguments with fine electric blues work that could be both gentle and incendiary, light and dark, sorrow- and joyful. Like life itself, really.

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