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Are The Blasters "Trouble Bound"?

By Jon Johnson, October 2002

During 2002, the profile of The Blasters has been higher than at any time since the mid-'80s, thanks to the recent release of Rhino's "Testament" compiling the group's complete recorded output for the Slash label and the October release of "Trouble Bound" on HighTone, a new live album recorded at the original group's recent West Coast reunion shows.

What's surprising is that the band's profile had slipped as low as it had in the first place. Along with fellow '80s roots-rockers Los Lobos, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Rockpile, The Blasters had a degree of public recognition that few of their early 21st century successors could hope to achieve.

And The Blasters were arguably the best of the lot, fueled by the world-class songwriting of lead guitarist Dave Alvin and the impassioned vocals of his older brother, Phil.

Formed in Downey, Cal. in the late '70s, the group recorded four studio albums and a live record between 1980 and 1985 before imploding onstage at a November 1985 performance in Montreal.

When the dust settled Dave Alvin and pianist Gene Taylor were gone; Dave for a successful post-Blasters career as a solo artist and producer, culminating in a 2001 Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

For their part, The Blasters have been nearly as invisible as a ghost, with no new recordings and few shows outside of their West Coast base of operations. Adding insult to injury was the fact that most of the group's catalog has been out of print for much of the past decade.

"I never thought The Blasters got their due," says Dave Alvin, 47, in a telephone interview. "A couple of years after (the release of "The Blasters Collection" in 1991) the agreement between Slash and Warner expired, and all of the masters reverted back to Slash, who then sold everything to somebody else, and...you know...the merry-go-round. So, when Rhino contacted me about helping out on this collection, I went into the Warner vaults, listening to the unreleased stuff."

Although The Blasters recorded their first album, 1980's "American Music," as a quartet, others soon climbed onboard; pianist Taylor and saxophonists Lee Allen and Steve Berlin. Although Allen - a well-known R&B performer in the '50s and '60s - passed away in 1994, Berlin (a member of Los Lobos since 1984) hasn't taken part in the recent reunion dates.

"We talked about it but then somebody - I think The Blasters' manager - said Los Lobos were doing gigs at the same time," Dave explains. "Maybe at one of the other dates, we'll twist his arm."

Since Dave Alvin left The Blasters toward the end of 1985, the band has gone through several replacement guitarists; first Michael "Hollywood Fats" Mann (who passed away in late 1986 due to heroin-induced heart failure), then, briefly, X's Billy Zoom (who Dave Alvin had just as briefly replaced in X). Following Zoom came Greg Hormel, then James Intveld, then Keith Wyatt, who still plays with "the continuing Blasters" (as Phil refers to the post-Dave Alvin versions of the band) today.

"I didn't have any misgivings about anybody's ability to play," says Phil Alvin, 49, on reuniting the original version of the group. "(Though) it seemed disrespectful to Keith and Jerry (Angel, the band's current drummer); that it would make unclear what was always a bit hard to keep clear: Who are The Blasters?"

Aside from three songs credited to The Blasters on Phil Alvin's 1994 solo album "County Fair 2000," no new Blasters music has been released since Dave Alvin's last album with the group, 1985's "Hard Line."

Phil Alvin says it hasn't been for lack of trying.

"I've got four records in the can," says Phil with no small degree of exasperation; understandably so. Hollywood Fats died while the band was recording a post-Dave Alvin studio album, and other sessions have taken place since then with Intveld and Wyatt. In addition, a mid-'90s live album with Intveld was recorded - twice! - and actually scheduled for release by one-time new age label Private Music before the label was bought out and the record scuttled by the new owners.

In spite of their long reputation as battling siblings in the best tradition of the Davies, the Everlys and the Gallaghers, the Alvins' relationship - as is the case with many brothers - is more complex than how it's frequently painted in the media."Brothers fight. And you shouldn't expect that to be different," says Phil Alvin. "I've always had a good relationship with David in that the relationship has included that we've always fought."

"Well, I really don't have to deal with it anymore," says Dave. "I've removed myself from having to do ' that. And lately Phil's been fine. It was real easy in the early days. When we fought we fought over brother kinds of things - 'You're stupid!' 'No, you're stupid!'"

It's no secret that towards the end Dave Alvin was increasingly frustrated being a Blaster; both with the band's inability to gain a wider audience, but also with the arguments with Phil over how the songs should be sung.

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