But a near death illness for Phil while on tour in Spain resulted in the two joining forces for "Common Ground Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing The Songs of Big Bill Broonzy," released in June, and the current tour to boot.
Broonzy, who recorded for three decades until the late 1950s, mined blues, country blues and folk. The Alvins listened to Broonzy and other bluesmen at the young age of about 12 while growing up in Downey, Cal. When asked in a recent NPR interview by Terri Gross why they recorded Broonzy songs, Dave opined and opened up a potential can of worms that his brother couldn't complain about the material.
No one else should either based on the CD and a sharp, engaging, well played fun and educational performance.
Dave Alvin has long been a steady driving touring machine, seemingly always on the road. His role here was a bit different since he's touring with his brother since not all the attention was on him, but lots of things weren't different. His lead guitar playing covered the bases of the music, whether blues, country or R&B. He also was the front man, in effect, as Phil was not one to gab a lot. That's okay because Dave can be funny with a faux sardonic wit about him.
Alvin also made for an educational evening. Smart move because chances are a lot of people didn't know very much about Broonzy. Alvin's explanations of the music and its impact on the Alvins proved helpful.
Dave Alvin correctly said that brother Phil was the one given the vocal chops in the family. Dave can sing just fine, but he was no Phil. While Phil, 61, appeared stiff in his upper body and hand movements, that had zero effect on his singing. He took most of the leads, although at times Dave would take verses of songs, and a few times, the two sang together.
Phil reached down for blues on the opening songs "All By Myself," and "Keys to the Highway," both from the Broonzy CD. He later got down with R&B with a cover of James Brown's "Please Please Please," a song Dave said few could sing. He rightfully put his full faith in his brother.
Sometimes Phil would quickly shift vocal gears, even if just for a few bars, seemingly with little effort. But it was those small moments that gave even greater depth to the material.
Long-time Alvin drummer Lisa Pankratz performed up to her usual high level as part of the backing trio, The Guilty Ones. She's fierce and determined, at least if taking her facial reactions into account, but most importantly always established a foundation. Ace Austin bassist Brad Fordham was in step with Pankratz to form a well-anchored rhythm section.
Guitarist Chris Miller, with two long braids and a cowboy hat, was also top shelf, although he had to share a lot of the lead guitar lines with Dave Alvin. When given the chance, Miller too shined with steely, twangy leads.
In addition to playing a chunk of the Broonzy disc, the Alvins played material of their former band The Blasters (Dave wrote the songs, and Phil sang for the blues, rockabilly, roots rock, etc. band) along with Dave's solo material ("King of California," "Johnny Ace Is Dead" and the very well received "What's Up With Your Brother?" which Dave said he wrote for Phil).
While Dave has made a bit out of the brothers not getting along in the past, one suspects he did not have the Gallagher brothers of Oasis fame or the Davies boys from The Kinks in mind as similar reference points. At least, based on this 135-minute show, audience members would never have guessed there were ever any issues.
During the closing song of the high intensity, dance inducing four-song encore, "So Long Baby Goodbye," Dave proclaimed, "I'm damn happy to be on the stage with him tonight," referring to his brother. Phil returned the compliment. One got the sense that they both meant it.