Seventeen years ago, the original lineup of the Blasters called it quits as infighting did in the roots rock mavericks from Downey led by brothers Phil and Dave Alvin. While at the time their fissure appeared to require the freezing over of hell to mend the wounds, they’ve reunited for a whopping five shows to promote the Warner/Rhino release of “The Complete Slash Recordings.” For a packed House of Blues, they stepped out of a time capsule and delivered a show straight off the 1985 rack. They had few peers back in that day, and after 90 steamingly executed minutes, it was clear Dave’s guitar playing has only improved in taste and forcefulness and Phil’s smoky voice remains tremendously overlooked in the rock annals. They more than capably evidence the durability of Dave’s timeless songs and raucous post-WWII R&B.
The Blasters created three full-length albums between 1981 and 1985 in a confluence of California jump blues, Tennessee rockabilly, Texas folk, urban poetry and punk rock. Generally overlooked at the time, their legend has grown alongside the development of the Blasters songwriter and guitarist Dave, who has made the most of his gruff, tobacco-stained singing voice on a collection of superb solo recordings. Phil followed the breakup with the brilliant “Un ‘Sung’ Stories,” recorded with the late Sun Ra and his Arkestra as well as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, that presaged multiculti eclecticism by a decade. Since then, he has worn the Blasters name for so long, its limitations have held him in a headlock.
They continue to seem uneasy onstage together. The brothers assumed spots on opposite sides of the stage, and the band rolled back the clock for one raveup after another — fabulous readings of “Marie Marie,” “Trouble Bound” and “Long White Cadillac” reasserted their unique place at the head of the roots rock class. A photograph of their mentor and bandmate, the late Lee Allen, sat in a spotlight at the edge of the stage near Dave, and his “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee” played before the band hit the stage; in many ways they serve his legacy well, making earnest and soulful music with passion. Friday’s show was a fine example.
Dave Alvin has long been a forthright American songwriter — his improvements have been in California-Texas imagery and his specific character sketches — and the Blasters’ repertoire is he at his most blunt: its praise for the blue-collar worker in “Common Man,” latenight tunes on “Border Radio,” pickup lines on “Help You Dream” and even murder in an ethnically changing town (“Dark Knight”). Phil gives those lyrics an emphatic shove; Dave’s speaking is done on a Fender guitar.
Long ago the top of their wish list was to sound like Big Joe Turner, the enormous blues shouter who gave us “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” and in many ways the Alvins have become, for a new generation of roots rockers, what Turner and Allen were to them — legends and inspirations who became friends. The “legend” tag is certainly something the Alvins wouldn’t embrace, and away from the band moniker, Dave thrives as one of the country’s finest songwriters. Certainly Dave has a lot more music in him that should be heard by an audience as enthusiastic as the one that greeted the band.
“See you in 20 years,” Dave said as the Blasters left the stage after two encores. And curiously, as fulfilling as it was to hear the magic of the Blasters restored, it felt like the old records and the new two-CD overview are enough for longtime fans and newcomers alike — this act doesn’t mesh well with nostalgia, and unlike their L.A. brethren X and Los Lobos, the leaders here only move forward when they’re apart.