From his early days as co-founder of the retro roots-rock band the Blasters to his solo career that yielded albums like Ashgrove (named for the legendary Los Angeles folk club that he haunted as a teen) and the aptly titled covers disc Public Domain, Dave Alvin's music has long been fueled by the past. But the past has never been as personal as with his two current projects, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women and Man of Somebody's Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney.
Both discs arose from the 2008 death of Chris Gaffney. A longtime fixture on the Southern California music scene, guitarist/accordionist Gaffney spent nearly a decade in Alvin's band the Guilty Men and was like a brother to him. They had grown up in neighboring, and decidedly untrendy, L.A. suburbs (Alvin in Downey and Gaffney in Hawaiian Gardens), but only met one night in the late '80s when Alvin happened upon Gaffney's band playing at the Hollywood rock dive bar, Raji's.
"It was one of those things where there are people that you feel have known your entire life except that you haven't met them yet," says Alvin. "It was one of those moments. We got each others' jokes — that's maybe the best type of friendship there is."
When Alvin learned Gaffney had cancer, he started to organize a benefit album. However, the fatal cancer moved swiftly, and the disc evolved into a tribute effort. Alvin assembled an all-star Americana team (including Los Lobos, James McMurtry, John Doe and Alejandro Escovedo), which perfectly reflects Gaffney's musical mosaic: from Joe Ely's Tex-Mex-flavored take on "Lift Your Leg" to Jim Lauderdale's honky-tonky "Glass House"; from Peter Case's rollicking rendition of "Six Nights a Week" to Dan Penn's heartaching "I'm So Proud."
One contributor that causes a double-take is Boz Scaggs. However, as Alvin explains, Scaggs (owner of two Bay Area clubs) is a fan of both Alvin's work and Gaffney's last band, the Hacienda Brothers. He says Scaggs' silky, soulful rendering of "Midnight Dreams" is "one of the best things I think he has ever done."
The disc also contains the late Freddy Fender's version of the Gaffney song "The Gardens." Alvin reveals that several acts "wanted to get their mitts" on the song, but he chose this mid-'90s recording Fender made with the Texas Tornados because "when Freddy Fender sings one of your songs, that is pretty damn good."
In his own music, Alvin very much felt Gaffney's absence. "I had done a few gigs with my normal band [the Guilty Men]. They were great and cathartic, but I was still looking around for Chris," says Alvin. "I just thought, let's do something different, and European techno was out."
For a show at last year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, he put together an all-female band with some of his favorite Americana ladies: guitarists Cindy Cashdollar and Nina Gerber, fiddlers Laurie Lewis and Amy Farris, bassist Sarah Brown, drummer Lisa Pankrantz and singer-songwriter Christy McWilson.
Despite a lack of practice time ("We rehearsed going on stage," jokes Alvin), their set was a success. "I was stunned," says Alvin. "I knew it would be good. I didn't think it would sound like a band that had been on the road for about a year. Walking off the stage, it was like, 'We're making a record.'"
The group, dubbed the Guilty Women, reconvened about two months later at an Austin recording studio. Alvin conducted a swift recording session to get the live, organic sound. While recording the old Tim Hardin gem "Don't Make Promises," for example, Alvin, Cashdollar and Gerber broke off into a spontaneous four-minute jam. That song also fits in with the album's reflective mood.
"A lot of the songs are based around death and passings," says Alvin.
Although there isn't a specific tune about Gaffney, "Downey Girl" deals with the life and death of Downey native Karen Carpenter, while the plaintive McWilson song "Potter's Field" squarely addresses morality. "Boss of the Blues" and "Nana And Jimi" both look back at youthful episodes (riding around with Big Joe Turner and going to see a Jimi Hendrix concert) that influenced Alvin's musical career.
The album is far from a downer, though. It opens with the Blasters' hit "Marie, Marie" done Cajun-style and closes with a roadhouse take on the standard "Que Sera Sera," which Alvin remarked "is my philosophy of life."
With these two discs, Alvin pays homage to the past and his late, great friend, while also moving forward with a "what will be, will be" attitude.