New Dave Alvin Live In Long Beach, CA 1997 View larger

Dave Alvin Live In Long Beach, CA 1997

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Includes performers Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Billy Boy Arnold and Joe Louis Walker.

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DAVE ALVIN SOLO SET Vocals & Guitar

1. Barn Burning
2. East Texas Blues
3. How You Want It Done
4. Dry River
5. Chains Of Love
6. Long White Cadillac

BILLY BOY ARNOLD Harp and Vocal DAVE Guitar
7. I Wish You Would

GATEMOUTH BROWN Fiddle and Vocal DAVE ALVIN Guitar

8. San Antonio Rose
9. Wabash Cannonball
10. Beer Barrel Polka
11. Jolie Blon
12. Jambalaya

BILLY BOY ARNOLD Harmonica JOE LOUIS WALKER Guitar DAVE ALVIN Guitar
13. Long Beach Blues
14. It’s A Long Way Home

When you think of blues towns, odds are the first name that comes to mind is not Long Beach, CA. Yet some truly great blues performances took place there, thanks largely to the commitment of public radio station KKJZ (KJAZZ). From 1980 till 2009, KLON, as KKJZ was known till 2002, sponsored the Long Beach Blues Festival, which presented a dazzling array of top-tier blues acts, including many legends (Big Joe Turner, Esther Phillips, Pee Wee Crayton) who called nearby L.A. home. KLON broadcast from Cal State University Long Beach, and then-program director Gary Chiachi also produced the Long Beach Blues Festival. Chiachi’s blues passion led him to bring the music to campus in the form of annual concerts at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, evenings billed as Blues Unplugged. In a 1999 interview, Chiachi described a Blues Unplugged concert thus: “The musicians get a chance to do something intimate without having to front a band, and the audience gets to hear them under optimum circumstances in an acoustically perfect 1,000-seat concert setting.” Along with uncommon solo sets, Blues Unplugged evenings would team musicians who rarely played together and close with a `jam’ by all the featured artists. The concerts, Chiachi said, were “designed to showcase the musicians in a way that audiences rarely, or never, get to experience.”

Like the Long Beach Blues Festival, Blues Unplugged concerts offered a mix of Southern California-based artists with others from Chicago and the Southern States. The concert at hand may be unique among Blues Unplugged outings for offering an on-campus performance by a CSULB alumnus, Dave Alvin. At the time of this 1997 concert, Alvin’s kinship with the blues may actually have been a mite less apparent than it is today, thanks to the success of the 2014 Dave and Phil Alvin Big Bill Broonzy tribute album, Common Ground. (The song he says he can never quite successfully finish here, “Tell Me How You Want It Done,” is among the standouts on Common Ground.) But Dave’s comments in this concert concerning following the likes of Big Joe Turner and Percy Mayfield around Southern California from concert halls to dive bars shows both the early start and the depth of his life-long commitment to this music. It’s evident, too, in both his guitar playing and singing here.

Alvin knew the blues well enough to dig deep for material and was confident enough to personalize it as he made it his own. A song an obscure Texas singer-pianist recorded twice, once in 1929 and again in 1960, is one Alvin numbered among his `favorite songs’ when writing about that topic in 2002: “I first heard `West Texas Woman Blues’ written by Whistlin’ Alex Moore when I was 13, and the song’s direct and simple blues poetry moved me even though the very adult subject matter was well out of my realm of experience at that time. Over the years its accurate and honest narrative still gets me. I covered this on King of California as `East Texas Blues’ because it reminded me of someone I used to know somewhere in east Texas.”

Along with creative covers, we hear just how firmly blues drenched Alvin’s originals are. His autobiographical “Dry River” borrows a guitar figure from Mississippi John Hurt, and “Long White Cadillac,” inspired by Hank Williams’s last ride, is fueled by punchy guitar lines drawn from Lightnin’ Hopkins. Alvin’s full tank of blues licks took him the distance whenever playing with blues legends. One such was Chicago harmonica ace Billy Boy Arnold, who scuffled on Maxwell Street with Bo Diddley before recording “I Wish You Would” in 1955, a song later covered by the Yardbirds. Arnold has always embraced the blues, but not so Clarence `Gatemouth’ Brown. Starting in 1947, Brown was one of the first (and best) of the Texas-based guitarists-singers-bandleaders recording tough `jump’ blues inspired by the pioneering T-Bone Walker. Yet decades later Brown took pleasure in insisting (and proving) he wasn’t `just a bluesman.’ A Gatemouth Brown performance would include jazzy jump blues on guitar but would also offer country, Cajun, and bluegrass fiddle tunes. Gatemouth took Texas pride in playing a little bit of everything, even to the bewilderment of some audiences. Emcee Gary Chiachi acknowledges as much, saying: “He’s the only guy I know who could play polka music on a fiddle and make a blues crowd happy!”

Bay Area bluesman Joe Louis Walker joined the `jam’ and performance of Brown’s “Long Way Home” that concluded this 1997 Blues Unplugged evening. Walker’s brilliant slide playing, inspired by the great Robert Nighthawk, is a sweet contrast to the confluence of guitar voices, harmonica blasts and fiddle wails offered by Arnold, Brown, and Alvin. Odds are it’s the only time they all played together, and it’s a cinch that, the blues though it may be, all went home smiling.

-Mark Humphrey