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Dave Alvin and Guilty Women convicted of great night of music

Regatta Bar, Cambridge, Mass., July 15, 2009

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The surroundings were atypical for Dave Alvin, something he pointed out a few times during the evening. Instead of some rock club, Alvin and the Guilty Women were playing an upscale jazz club at an upscale hotel in the heart of Harvard Square.

The setting may have enabled Alvin to offer funny lines to the packed room of about 220, but one thing did not change - the musical abilities of Alvin and his 6 cohorts on stage.

Alvin and the women are touring behind a late May self-titled release. The idea for the project followed in the wake of the death last year of Alvin's best friend, fellow musician Chris Gaffney, of cancer. Gaffney played in Alvin's band, the Guilty Men, and Alvin decided to do something unusual at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco - a backing band of women.

The results were extremely satisfying throughout the 100-minute show from the get go with a reprise of Marie, Marie, the lead-off track on the new CD, but a song Alvin recorded with The Blasters decades ago. It was clear from the get go that this was going to be a different night of music for Alvin with twin fiddles from bluegrasser Laurie Lewis and Austin ace Amy Farris going at the lively outing.

Alvin , from the blue collar city of Downey, Cal., quickly made his first crack about the surroundings, announcing, "If I'm about anything, I'm about reggatas."

Probably not.

Still the high level music continued with Alvin and company playing the first four songs from the new disc in order.

While a Texas swing and country sounds ruled for most of the evening, bluesy songs also were part of the mix, especially Boss of the Blues, a song done in tribute to Alvin mentor Big Joe Turner.

Emphasizing the new disc, Alvin worked in a few selections from his past including Abilene and Ashgrove.

Alvin, an ace guitarist in his own right, certainly was not afraid to share the spotlight again and again. The rhythm section of Austin mainstay Lisa Pankratz on drums and Sarah Brown on bass was very active with Pankratz seeming to adhere to the less is more philosophy. Lewis added a lot to the music on both fiddle and mandolin.

A few other women really added to the night. One was Christy McWilson of Seattle, who took lead vocals on several songs and backing vocals. She proved to be very forceful in her delivery, including Weight of the World, with a bit of a hiccup in her voice. She helped close the night with a lengthy version of Que Sera Sera, introduced by Alvin as "the one universal truth. The truth can be found in the lyrics in a song by Doris Day." This was no campy version, but a nice combination of lead vocals from both Alvin and McWilson in a song that kicked.

The other stellar contributor was one of the best pedal steel players out there, Cindy Cashdollar. As Alvin said, she kicked ass for folks like Dylan. She did likewise tonight with lots of sounds emanating from her steel that sure sounded a lead guitar at work. Cashdollar added a high level of power time and time again.

Gaffney received a fitting tribute in the first song of the encore, The Man of Somebody's Dreams, the title track of a tribute disc put together by Alvin for his friend. On the disc, Los Lobos tackle it. Here, it was left to the good devices of Alvin and McWilson.

There were no slouches on this evening either players-wise or song-wise, that's for sure. Everybody seemed to be energized and at the top of their game. Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women were successful on every count no matter the venue.