Folk music, a term Dave Alvin used to summarize his body of work Saturday at an overflowing Jack’s Sugar Shack, is as good a tag as any for Alvin, provided Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Merle Haggard and Paul Burlison fit the category, too. The hushed moments in Alvin’s invigorating and career-covering show reinforced the finest aspects of the genre; on the other hand, his hell-raising rock ‘n’ roll and blues songs demonstrated how broadly the word “folk” can be defined.
Striking realism has long been Alvin’s strong suit and his album “Blackjack David” (Hightone) is not only his most-realized document yet, it stands as one of the year’s finest efforts.
More than half the album’s tracks made their way into his 130-minute set. On the new songs, he makes cinematic sweeps in compact strokes, seemingly culling stories from hotel registers, smalltown newspapers and conversations in diners and gas stations.
Airport hotels, the Los Angeles River, his mentor and former bandmate, the late Lee Allen — all are patches on a quilt that now includes the starkness and despair of “Railroad Bill,” the promise of rebirth in “California Snow” and “Abilene,” a bright free-spirited ditty about starting a new life in the central Texas town, a prototype for what country radio should sound like.
More than in other recent gigs, Alvin dug deep in the catalog of songs he wrote while guiding the Blasters: “Marie Marie,” “So Long Baby Goodbye” and “American Music.” As great as those songs are, they seem like babies next to their more mature brethren, “Fourth of July” and the jump-blues-inspired “Six Nights a Week.”
Alvin’s current backup band, yet another edition of the Guilty Men, is full of aces at every turn. Few performers look as pleased to be onstage as Alvin, and the joy overflows in this unit.
In pianist Joe Terry, he has found his most perfect foil, a keyboardist as adept as guitarist Alvin when it comes to dipping into every blues port from New Orleans to Long Beach.
With the blues playing a vital role in his show, Alvin has revved up his role as lead guitarist; he is that rare breed who can bend strings on par with his ability to pen a tune.
His guitar solos, and in particular the blues variations, tell his own history, of sneaking into clubs as a teenager to hear the real bluesmen, studying their records to bring out new textures in the Blasters’ reinvigorated rockabilly and testifying to the ability of the fingers to detail the condition of the heart.