ONE NIGHT IN Italy, I saw Dave Alvin burn down the house. In the middle of a wild European road trip--eight countries in 10 days--my brother and I caught up with Alvin in Rho, a small town just outside of Milan. Billed as "Rock in Rho," the evening featured Alvin and his band, the Guilty Men, in concert with tourmate and fellow American Chris Gaffney. About 600 or so Italians were gathered under a tent on that rainy night, come to hear some fine Americana.
While Gaffney warmed everyone up with a brief set of honky-tonk and Tex-Mex, our dates arrived. They'd ridden their Vespas from Milan and were soaked to the bone, but the weather had done nothing to dampen their spirits. We were already half tanked on wine, and the girls did their best to catch up. Gaffney finished, Alvin took the stage, and in no time at all, his revved-up rock and Rho had worked the crowd into a jiggling, sweating, giddy bunch of fools.
About halfway through Alvin's set, I heard a sudden whoosh and caught a flash of light in the corner of my eye. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw the food vendor's grill explode. The commercial-sized unit was engulfed in flames, and a ball of fire leapt to the roof of the tent. Three hundred drunk guineas ran for cover, three hundred more gawked at the spectacle, and Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men played on without missing a beat, rocking their little piece of northern Italy as if nothing had happened.
The fire was extinguished almost as quickly as it started. The timid returned and the night rambled on. We'd lost the grill but saved the wine, and no one had been hurt. Turning back toward the stage, I could see--the wine helped--a twinkle in Alvin's eyes. He'd burned down the house, and he knew it.
The audience knew it, too. To say a good time was had by all doesn't begin to do the night justice. By the end, we'd all spilled so much of that good cheap red on our shirt fronts that we looked like we'd just been through a riot. And except for the minor inconvenience of having to climb over junkies in mid-shoot piled up outside the toilets, the night was magnificent, memorable and, like Alvin's performance, flawless.
That same spontaneous combustion will be on hand in Tucson Friday night when KXCI brings Alvin and his Guilty Men to El Casino Ballroom. Alvin's touring in support of his latest album, Public Domain, an acoustic Americana gem. Songs in the public domain are those so old that copyright has expired. But don't fret that these chestnuts have gone moldy. Unlike most of today's popular music, the songs Alvin covers on Public Domain are classics; that an artist with Alvin's high level of discrimination chooses to dig them up and revive them is proof of their enduring appeal.
From the opener, "Shenandoah," which he calls "one of those songs that you heard before you were born and you'll still hear after you've gone," Alvin leads listeners on a tour of early American pop--songs born in minstrelsy and Tin Pan Alley, on railroads and in cotton fields, in churches and in brothels. Throughout, he gives these classics the respect they deserve, while never losing sight of the fact that it's all good-time music.
Alvin got his start in the Blasters, the seminal L.A. rockabilly outfit that he formed and fronted with his brother Phil. If Phil got most of the attention as the band's lead singer, listeners in the know knew it was in many ways Dave's show. He wrote most of the Blasters' tunes, and drove the band relentlessly with his white-hot lead guitar. (Check out Michael Hyatt's great photo for a glimpse of Dave in action, circa 1982.) The Blasters channeled the Alvin brothers' love of classic American styles--blues, early R&B, country, folk--into a flame thrower that left venues charred and audiences burned to a crisp, sent to perdition with smiles on their faces.
After the Blasters disbanded, Dave went solo, releasing a string of records that showed he could take the Blasters' rock-solid foundation and build one hell of a hot house himself. Highlights of his solo career include 1994's King of California, which placed him at the forefront of the nascent Americana scene, and Interstate City, a barn-burning live set from 1996.
On that drunken whirlwind road tour of Europe, we were involved in a dozen minor traffic accidents and witnessed a dozen more. We partied with nudists in Frankfurt, topless housewives in Cassis, drag queens in Genoa, and croupiers in Opatija; bribed our way out of jail in Prague; fought with neo-nazis in Vienna and gypsies in Milan. But the high point of the trip, bar none, was that night in Rho, when Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men burned down the house. If El Casino doesn't explode into flames Friday night, it won't be because Alvin wasn't on fire.
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men will perform Friday, December 29 at 8 p.m. in El Casino Ballroom, 427 E. 26th St. Teddy Morgan and the Pistolas will open the show. Advance tickets are $15, $10 for KXCI members, and $3 more at the door. Info: 623-1000.