'Common Ground,' the first album brothers Dave Alvin, left, and Phil Alvin have recorded together, has them covering Big Bill Broonzy songs. (Beth Herzhaft)
Dave and Phil Alvin were one of the music world’s classic battling brothers, not only in their early ’80s roots-rock heyday with the Blasters, but going back to childhood. In the storied tradition of the Everly Brothers and the Davies brothers, the two would fight over what they heard on a scratchy old record, the weather or just about anything.
Dave left the Blasters in the mid-’80s (save for a few reunions), while Phil has continued to tour with the group. It was two years ago that Phil, now 61, suffered a near-fatal respiratory illness while on tour in Spain. That led to a warming of the sibling relationship, after an on-and-off estrangement.
Now they’ve recorded a tour de force album of Big Bill Broonzy songs, “Common Ground,” and are touring together. Dave and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones make a stop at the Magic Bag Theater in Ferndale Tuesday.
Did the soft breath of mortality whispering in their ears make this happen?
“It was that, and we had other people pass away in the past few years very suddenly,” says Dave Alvin, 58. “All of that added up to realizing that we may not be immortal. We made records as the Blasters and all that, but never just the two of us. I thought it was time for Phil and I to do that.”
Playing and singing Big Bill Broonzy songs was a natural for the two blues-loving brothers, because of the diversity of his material. Broonzy played everything from Delta-style country blues and ragtime/jazzy blues in the ’30s, to the more modern sound of jump blues and rhythm and blues in the ’40s and ’50s.
The Alvins’ love of roots music goes back to their childhood in Downey, California. “Phil brought home a record when he was about 12 that he got at a department store, ‘Big Bill’s Blues,’ a reissue of his recordings from the late ’30s,” Dave says. “ ‘Trucking Little Woman,’ ‘How You Want It Done’ and some other of Bill’s songs, we discovered two or three years later.”
One of Broonzy’s most-covered songs is “Key to the Highway,” notably Eric Clapton’s rendition on “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.”
The Alvins pondered skipping it, but ultimately, “We decided to do it sort of like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. We said, ‘Let’s swing it up a little bit,’ ” Dave says. It’s one of the album’s strongest cuts.
One of the keenest pleasures of “Common Ground” is hearing the Alvins’ two very different voices play against each other, such as on the song “All By Myself,” when they trade off singing each line of the song. Always the lead singer, Phil has a higher, smoother voice, with a bluesy lower range he can dip into, while Dave’s voice is gruffer and lower.
Dave can’t say enough about his older brother’s vocal chops. “Not many people could have the almost operatic voice anymore, and my brother has that Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown and Johnny Shines thing, that power in their voices. That’s what sets my brother apart from a lot of other guys on the contemporary blues scene; he has the ability to sing above the band, which is something I’ll never be able to do.”
Phil Alvin muses, when asked about his singing heroes. “Big Joe Turner was a friend of mine and we played with him, so he always made a big impression. Jackie Wilson was maybe the greatest there ever was. Big Bill’s voice always appealed to me. Little Willie John was great, and Roy Brown, and (Delta blues man) Johnny Shines. I could imitate (Shines); you could hear me blocks away.”
With the Blasters, the Alvins recorded a hit version of “I’m Shakin’ ” by Little Willie John in 1981. Indeed, one of their boyhood fights was over a scratchy old King 45 rpm record they had of the song — whether the drummer played during the break or was silent. (They met the drummer a few years back and settled it: He played on the break.)
What did they think of Jack White’s 2012 version of “I’m Shakin’ ”?
“When I heard it, I said, ‘OK they made it into a pop record,’ there are a lot of nice pop touches on it,” Dave says. “I’ll say this as a proud brother, vocally (Jack) can’t touch Phil on it, and he certainly can’t touch Little Willie John.”
Collecting old records, especially 78s, has become a well-publicized, niche activity, with books and documentaries out about 78 collectors. The Alvins are wary of the snobbism attached. Both are fans of singers such as Bing Crosby and argue that unless a musician was lost in the woods in the 1920s and never heard the radio, he was influenced by pop and jazz.
“We always wanted to hear the music, while a lot of those guys collected serial numbers or labels,” says Dave. “And blues purists tend to relegate artists like Little Willie John or Big Bill Broonzy to the side because of their eclecticism, and the fact that they had long careers. The perfect thing for a blues purist is for the guy to make one record and then die.
“Guys like Roy Brown, they had hit records, they wore tuxedos. To blues purists, there’s something false or commercial about them. The reality was, (Delta bluesman) Charley Patton played guitar behind his head. All the guitar player entertainer tricks that are a cliche today, he was doing.”
An Evening with Dave and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones
8 p.m. Tuesday
Magic Bag Theater
22920 Woodward, Ferndale