For their first album together in 30 years, Dave and Phil Alvin of the Blasters have turned to the blues of Big Bill Broonzy. “Common Ground: Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy” will be released June 3 on Yep Roc Records, and today (Feb. 19) Billboard exclusively premieres the track “All By Myself” (listen below). The brothers from Downey, Calif., will debut their act at SXSW on March 13 and tour the U.S. and Europe throughout 2014; their hometown gig in L.A. will be June 14 at the Troubadour.
“The whole idea is to showcase the breadth of his songwriting,” says singer/songwriter/guitarist Dave Alvin. “On the couple of songs I sing, I took some liberties, but I am always playing Bill Broonzy chords.
“His influence on a variety of players went from the uptown musicians to the country blues guys like Big Joe Williams. He was an influence on Muddy Waters, an influence on the folk musicians of the early 1960s and one of the first blues guys to go over to Europe where he was an influence on skiffle bands and guitarists like Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton.”
In the 1920s, Broonzy worked as a fiddle player in bands in Chicago until he made his first recording in 1927 and became one of the city’ most prominent blues stylists. He filled in for Robert Johnson at the first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938. He was one of the first musicians to use electric instruments in the very early 1940s. While he made more than 200 recordings between 1927 and 1942, his best-known work is the blues standard “Key to the Highway.” Broonzy died in 1958.
Prior to forming the Blasters in 1979, singer Phil Alvin, 60, had a blues band that covered a good number of Broonzy songs. “I felt I had a connection with him,” he says, mentioning a guest appearance once with former Broonzy associate Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson at a show that “solidified that connection.”
“He influenced how I became a singer and the kind of singer I became,” he says. “These are songs I’ve been singing for so long. I don’t think I could have done the record without doing ‘Feel So Good’ or ‘Trucking Little Woman’ – those were the natural ones for me to choose. And I always loved ‘Tomorrow’.”
The Alvins’ performances together since Dave’s departure from the Blasters in 1986 have been mostly limited to a reunion tour in 2003 and tracks on the John Mellencamp-Stephen King musical “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” and Dave’s last album, “Eleven Eleven.” Famous for not getting always along, they joked that doing Broonzy songs would eliminate the arguing.
The project began as an EP that Yep Roc executives encouraged the Alvins to turn into a full album. Former Blaster Gene Taylor backs the brothers on piano with bass duties split between Bob Glaub and Brad Fordham and drummers Don Heffington and Lisa Pankratz.
As they fleshed out the material, both Alvins wanted to cover every element of Broonzy’s career – the guitar skills he showcased in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, his songwriting in the late ‘30s and 1940s and his versatility in the 1950s. “It’s hard to pick a peak time for him,” Phil Alvin says.
“He was denigrated because he had such a long career and he wasn’t afraid of the purists,” Dave Alvin says. “He didn’t like to be pigeon-holed. In the early ‘50s he’s playing acoustic folk shows to progressive white crowds, then playing uptown with an electric band and then heading to Europe where he’ll play (traditional folk songs) like ‘John Henry.’ It’s a lot of different styles and a lot of great songs to play around with.”