Those with at least a casual familiarity with bluesy rock and rock will very likely recognize the Alvin Brothers’ names as the co-leaders of the Blasters. But there’s more to their tale than the music they collaborated to create.
Their shared story has all the elements of a Hollywood epic: drama, conflict and eventually reconciliation. But if movie moguls should ever decide to immortalize the California-born brothers’ lives on celluloid, one thing would be clear: the movie would have one hell of a soundtrack.
Phil, the older of the Alvin brothers, was born in 1955. Younger brother Dave came along two years later. Fueled by a fondness of blues, country and rockabilly, the gifted siblings formed a band called the Blasters in the late seventies. With Phil on lead vocals and Dave shouldering most of the song writing duties and adding guitar, the band developed a loyal following among those seeking a relief from the steady diet of disco and soft pop served up on am radio. But it wasn’t long for things to grow rocky with the brothers. And in 1986, amid growing tension between the competitive brothers, Dave left the band for a variety of different pursuits.
What followed for Dave was a brief period of wandering, consisting of a brief stint in the LA punk band X, then a series of solo albums which, despite critical praise, garnered little enthusiasm from record buyers.
At this point, the band was not fully finished. Phil would occasionally lead different incarnations of the Blasters to reunion tours and live albums. And in the later years, Dave would join them.
But in 2014, a far more urgent matter had intervened in the careers and lives of the brothers. Big brother Phil, was dying.
Technically, Phil Alvin did die in a hospital bed in Spain when his treatment for a abscessed tooth shut down his throat and caused his heart to stop. But he was resuscitated twice. The experience left him understandably rattled and eager to patch up the rocky relationship between him and his little brother. “When I first became conscious,” Phil explained. “I knew I was coming out of some ultimate-nothing-peace, and just for an instant it was like … ‘Awww.’ Then I started thinking about people I love and all that, and all the responsibility, and that was all good.”
Rediscovering Common GroundJoking that legendary bluesman Big Bill Broonzy was the only thing they never argued about, the two of them reconciled their differences by recording an homage to Broonzy called Common Ground. But there was more to the choice than the unlikelihood of an argument developing. Broonzy was a childhood hero to both brothers and paying him tribute was a kind of return to childhood. As Dave put it, “We had never made a record that focused just on the 13 and 14-year-old Alvin brothers. The kind of record like, ‘Gee, if they could make a record, what kind of record would they make?’ So we make it.”
Common Ground is loads of fun from beginning to end – even when the subject matter gets dark. A song like Big Bill Blues, for example, has a triumphant tone when performed by the Alvin Brothers, especially considering what they’ve been through.
With the brothers’ relationship back on happy terms and their collaborative skills steady as ever, questions have been sparked regarding the status of their former band. More bluntly, will there be another blasters record featuring the original line-up?
There’s no official word as of yet, but after Dave’s otherworldly moments in a Spanish hospital, it must seem to fans of the brothers that stranger things have happened.