This was the art side of Dave Alvin’s tour in support of his tribute to California songwriters, “West of the West.” Alvin played curator for half of the dozen tunes in the set, bouncing between his own California-centric numbers and the pieces he covers on his YepRoc disc. His show, filled with observations on California geography, humor and a reverence for the state’s country-music heritage, drove home the point that the Getty Center’s comfy auditorium is a perfect venue for artists to get a little philosophical. At the same time, the room can amply handle a band that arrives equipped to rock.
Alvin, a brilliant songwriter whose initial success was as chief songwriter and lead guitarist for the Blasters, was acutely aware of his surroundings, and for every time he used the vocabulary of academia, he matched it with some roadhouse vigorousness in his guitar playing.
The hushed, attentive crowd almost made him laugh his way through breaks; still, he was able to shed light on an array of California artists, from the Beach Boys to Merle Haggard, back to Jackson Browne and on to little-known folk legend Jim Ringer. His stories were compact and intriguing; one wonders if he would agree to return to the Getty and just lecture on California music as a whole.
On several tunes — Browne’s “Redneck Friend,” Alvin’s “Ashgrove” (an ode to a legendary nightclub) and others — he delivered verses as a lecturer might, talk-singing his way through a lyric that gave it an added level of distinction.
Accompaniment, too, worked in that department, as Alvin allowed Amy Farris’ fiddle and Chris Miller’s lap steel and electric guitar to drive songs deep into blues or country territory. The presence of ’50s do-wop act the Calvanes freed up Richard Berry’s “I’m Bewildered” and Brian Wilson’s “Surfer Girl,” taking them out of genre restrictions.
It’s no surprise that an Alvin show would be a lesson in American music. He ventured to Mississippi for the closer, performing an old acoustic blues tune by John Hurt with the entourage of do-wop singers, fiddle and dueling lead guitars. It was a moment of divine reinvention, six decades of indigenous American music coming together organically and providing a stylistic springboard for every audience member, regardless of musical taste.