The Blasters: A last blast from the past

The Eighties R&B outfit The Blasters are back with a new album and UK tour. Their guitarist, David Alvin, tells Keith Shadwick why it won't happen again
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

That rough and tough, rollicking R&B and blues-based band The Blasters are back. Well, sort of. They're back with a new live album, Trouble Bound, and they're also back for a European and UK tour, with three gigs in Britain in late July. But it's not permanent. If you're a true Blasters believer this could be the last opportunity to see them with the original band's line-up. And if you're not close enough to London or Glasgow to attend the live album may be the nearest you'll get to a Blasters valediction.

According to founder member and guitarist Dave Alvin: "The band has not reformed. I have no interest in being in this band. I quit the band in December 1985 and went on to other things. Rhino records contacted me around 18 months ago saying they were gonna do a Blasters compilation, going back to our original records, and they wanted my involvement. When I was listening to it, I had to admit I got a wee bit nostalgic: the music was from a time when everyone was still around. Today, a lot of our friends are gone, passed on for both natural and unnatural reasons, much of our families are gone, and all of our parents are gone. The only way for me to 'go home' is to work onstage with these guys. It made me think about that a lot."

The Rhino compilation, Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings, was released in the US early last year, and it seemed apposite that the remaining band members should re-form to celebrate what it encapsulated. As Alvin says, "We were a good band. I thought - let's do it one more time. Then it's back to other things." The Blasters had a successful reunion tour in 2002, the last US gigs taking place in December. "We had a month of gigs in the States last year, then we had a lay-off and did other things, and now it's Europe. I'm interested to see what happens in the UK because The Blasters were never that huge there, although we had a very loyal fan base."

By the time the band had completed the US leg of their tour, they had also recorded a new album - their first live one. It came off the back of a solo album Dave Alvin had been finishing prior to the Blasters tour, with Alvin using the same team to tape some of the band's shows at The House of Blues in Los Angeles during March and June last year. Alvin thinks it may well be the best thing the band have ever done. "It's a document: it shows us as we really are, onstage and doing what we do best. The band is better now than it was back then, when we were a working band and still learning how to do it." The sound is raw, the crowd vocal, the musicianship tight and exciting. The R&B and blues roots are proudly on show for all to see.

This is what made The Blasters a band to reckon with in the dawn of the Eighties in LA, but it's also what finally led Dave Alvin to leave it. The members all grew up together in Downey, a large town in what was then rural California, 20 miles south-east of Los Angeles, where each generation of migrants, from all over America and from Mexico, had brought in a fresh wave of musical influence and stimulation. The band had gravitated towards the blues and R&B they came across live and on record, and in turn developed their own powerful live act and a loyal following. "We got close to some of the older musicians," Alvin recalls, "like Big Joe Turner, T Bone Walker and Lee Allen." Allen, the great saxophonist on many Fats Domino and Little Richard sessions, eventually became a member of The Blasters, staying with them until his death in 1995. The new album is dedicated to his memory.

A long campaign to crack LA followed. "In those days we tended to play fast and loud," Alvin explains. "It took a long time to get accepted in LA. We were accepted first by the punk rock scene, because we were loud and fast and could keep up with them. It's in the nature of the guys in the band. We tend to push it." This slow building up of a live following spread up and down the West Coast, giving them a base from which to take their act US-wide and begin to register success on the recording front. Alvin looks back at those early records now as somewhat hit-and-miss.

"This new album in many ways is the best thing we ever did. On the early records, we'd never been in a studio before and it was difficult to find the engineers and producers who could get the sound we needed. They were out there, but we couldn't find them then. So we produced ourselves - and it didn't work out all the time."

Alvin possesses a tremendous knowledge of American music of all types and eras. Talking about production techniques, he discusses at length the architecture of sound wrought in the studio by such Fifties and Sixties greats as Lee Hazlewood and Phil Spector. And he also talks avidly about the excitement brought to records by Hazlewood's and Spector's opposites - in terms or method and philosophy - such as the Chess brothers in Chicago.

All of which underlines why Alvin sees this as a momentary reunion for the band: his musical activities and interests simply cannot be encompassed by an unvaried diet of The Blasters. "I left the band originally because I found it constricting musically. I still find it constricting. I have other interests and I have projects that I will return to when this tour is finished. I'm going into the studio in October to make another solo record. I like playing differently in different situations. If I was playing, say, with Richard Thompson and Charlie Watts, I'd be playing entirely differently from how I approach being with The Blasters. That's what I like doing: keeping it broad, keeping the possibilities open."

'Trouble Bound' is out now on HighTone Records. The Blasters play The Ferry, Glasgow (0141-353 8000) on 28 July, and Dingwalls, London (020-7267 1577) on 29 & 30 July