April 28, 2017
A quick little anecdote about Dave Alvin before I dive into this show. This ties to the previous post, Dead Reckoning at Johnny D’s.
In the post-show euphoria of the August 4, 1995 Dead Reckoning show at Johnny D’s, when the crowd would not disperse, Marvoni and I struck up a conversation with another couple as we milled about the room. I have no recall about how we happened on the subject of Dave Alvin—of whom, at the time, I had only cursory knowledge. He once was in the Blasters. They sang Marie Marie, and beyond that I knew nothing. Well, the woman (who I believe is Cousin Kate of the Sunday morning radio show, Sunday Morning Country, 10 to 2 on WZBC 90.3 FM,) became very animated when the subject somehow turned to Dave Alvin. She told us we should do ourselves a favor and see Dave. He is the greatest, his band is tremendous, yada yada. Truthfully, her enthusiasm over Dave Alvin was memorable. I say memorable because we ran into her eighteen years later at a 2017 Dave and Phil Alvin show at the Sinclair in Harvard Square, and after that show we approached her to reintroduce ourselves and remind her of her enthusiastic endorsement of Dave—an effective endorsement at that, as the Sinclair show made it more than a half-dozen times seeing Dave and the Guilty Men/Ones. Having taken her up on her suggestion, Dave has become an all-time favorite in our household. We got a chance to thank Cousin Kate. She unknowingly (until that June 2017 night) opened the door through which Marvoni and I entered into the straight-up badass musical world of one Dave Alvin, guitar slinging troubadour from the Golden State. If you don’t know it, I’m telling you, the dude is a treasure! In hindsight it’s easy to understand Cousin Kate’s over-the-top ardor for this treasure, because to catch a live Dave Alvin show is to walk away stone cold sold on his musical brilliance. I’m not joking. It only takes one time, and you’re hooked – kind of like musical cocaine.
So now it’s March 2017 and we have information our friends Debra and BraveJoe Chromy are setting up permanent residence in Arlington, VA sometime in the late spring. We have a case of the blues over this news. I don’t remember the specific timeframe, but seemingly out of nowhere Marvoni dropped a swell surprise on me by announcing two of our favorite musicians (Dave Alvin and Marty Stuart) are playing back-to-back nights at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA. Unknown to me, he hatched a plan to get tickets for both shows for us and the Chromys. We would then use this as an excuse to make our first visit to Chromy Castle South. Debra and Joe came quickly on board and in late-April we showed up on their doorstep where they graciously hosted us for a weekend of top-shelf musicology.
Before we go any further, I’m going to advise any readers of this blog, if you don’t know Dave Alvin, or know his music, or are aware of his chops, stop what you’re doing and swing over to YouTube and give him a listen. Go for something live: Johnny Ace is Dead, Jubilee Train, Dry River, Marie Marie. It’s important to know just how exquisite is this guy’s musical prowess.
Okay, good. Let’s go.
Friday April 28, 2017. Late afternoon, Marvoni, BraveJoe and I drove over to the Birchmere to stand in line for general admission entrance to the show. Bill Kirchen and Too Much Fun were opening, and we wanted to be in our seats when Kirchen and band took the stage. Debra joined us after clocking out of her job downtown in DC. Bill Kirchen, of Hot Rod Lincoln fame, opened with a rollicking set of old school rockabilly. The man was in full possession of his instrumental chops and his set was the very definition of F-U-N! He played lots of favorites: the bitchin’ truck driving classic, Semi Truck, Smoke Smoke Smoke That Cigarette, Hillbilly Truck Drivin’ Man, and of course, Hot Rod Lincoln. It was a robust and joyful set that knocked the crowd on its ass and put us in the right space for the whirlwind that was Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones. We were already getting pretty well oiled when Dave and crew took the stage. We didn’t let up and neither did Dave and the band. They opened with a ripping version of Harlan County Line with Dave’s familiar stinging guitar licks, and the badass Lisa Pankratz furiously holding down the beat behind her drum kit. They steamrolled right into Jubilee Train and we were off. The rest of the set list is as follows:
Southern Flood Blues, (Big Bill Broonzy), King of California, Johnny Ace is Dead, Long White Cadillac, Abilene,Shenandoah, Ashgrove, Dry River, and Fourth of July, which closed the set. They then followed with a three-song encore: The Gardens (honoring Chris Gaffney), Out in California, and the Blasters’ classic, Marie Marie. There was no letup in intensity until the beautiful, spare Shenandoah. Dry River and Fourth of July returned us to the heat. Then the encore kicked our ass. This classic set of tunes was the whole Dave Alvin package: Alvin’s own beautifully written contributions to the American roots music canon, inspired covers, furious rockers, austere ballads, all delivered with virtuosity, intensity, and joy. This was the sort of show that diminishes your hearing. Ears ring through the next day and maybe there’s a twinge of regret for the potential hearing loss, but in the moment there’s only a fuzzy headiness. In that fuzzy headiness lies strange pleasure.
Midway through the set we sent up a beer to Dave from our table, 218, and he thanked 218 for it! O sweet validation. It made me swoon. The beer flowed crazy all night. Two things are consistent for every Dave Alvin show I’ve ever attended: the drinking always gets out of hand, almost as an expected reflex to the sparks flying from the stage. Despite always feeling like shit the next day, it ALWAYS feels worth going overboard because in the moment this band’s mastery of its gift is flat-out conducive to drinking. They’re a real-deal-honky-tonk-good-time-rock-and-roll tornado. The natural response is to drink along. The second consistency is this: any time we’ve brought friends to Dave for the first time, they can’t help but acknowledge his badassery, and they always come away freshly-minted Dave Alvin fans. It’s futile to resist falling for him and his killer band. This is what Cousin Kate imparted on us twenty-four years ago. It still holds true. Man, we owe Cousin Kate a major debt of gratitude!
The hallmark of any of the great shows is that feeling of floating away when it ends. A lightness carried us off to downtown DC where we indulged in adult milkshakes and late-night munchies, and shared good fortune to have witnessed rock and roll magic once more.
I have thought of this often in the past two years: I wish every year were like 2017. That year Marvoni and I got to see Dave Alvin three times—three different shows, three amazing shows. The Birchmere show was super special in that we got to share our love of this singular artist with our friends, Debra and BraveJoe. It was a wonderfully memorable night.
One of the great nights.
Rock on, my friends.