Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men played The Sons of Hermann Hall Thursday night with Chris Gaffney’s band, The Hacienda Brothers , opening- while the regular Thursday night campfire singalong was going on full steam in the downstairs bar. All kinds of old guitars, banjos, and mandolins (along with old guitar, banjo, and mandolin players) were everywhere; there was even a vintage looking lap steel guitar propped up against the wall in the hall just outside the bar. A big circle of players were singing and jamming away while others hung out to have a smoke or drink at the bar or in the hallway.
But the real guitar action was upstairs in the ballroom when DA, graying, dressed in black with a red scarf tied around his neck, took the stage. Kicking off with The Blaster’s “So Long Baby, Goodbye,” DA and The Guiltys showed the sparse, weeknight crowd just why they have a reputation as one of the very best live roots-rock bands around.
Gaffney, who’s played with DA a lot over the years, joined the Guilty Men on accordion and acoustic guitar for the entire night which made the whole thing kind of special – they’re only doing five shows together on this tour and this was one of two Texas dates together.
The bulk of the show was songs from his new CD, West of the West, a tribute to California songwriters. Now the term “California songwriter” can mean anything from Buck Owens to Snoop Dogg and that seemed to be the point. DA has a way of mixing up the genres of blues, soul, country, folk and rock and forging a uniquely American sound of his own.
He mixed them up pretty thoroughly on the new stuff; playing Jackson Browne’s classic country slide guitar rocker “Redneck Friends” as a swinging, loungy blues and The Beach Boy’s “Surfer Girl” as an ambitious attempt at blending surf rock and doo-wop. He asked the audience to sing along saying “Let’s start the new doo-wop underground scene right here tonight.”
With 25 years of consistently solid songwriting and thousands of live shows behind him; he not only has a serious catalog of songs to draw from, he also has one of the tightest bands on the road to back them up.
Between the songs from the new cd they played a healthy selection from his previous release, Ashgrove, as well as a few choice old favorites like “Abilene,” “4th of July,” and a jaw dropping version of “Haley’s Comet” that featured some of the most stunning guitar work of the night. On his second solo record, Blue Blvd, “Haley’s Comet” sounds just a bit dated, but Thursday night they played it with the kind of intensity you’d think could only be mustered up for something brand new. DA was all over the fretboard in a way that would have ripped the skin off the fingers of a lesser player. When it ended, everyone at our right-up-front table exchanged looks of utter disbelief.
Really, it was that good.
All night they kept the aging crowd on its feet. People that looked like they probably shouldn’t be up dancing when they’re trying to hold a beer just couldn’t help themselves. With drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks and bassist Greg Boaz keeping a solid rocking beat, even through the slower tempo songs, DA and guitarist Chris Miller (the newest Guilty Man) absolutely shredded those strings as they traded fiery guitar licks and channeled feedback expertly with keyboardist Joe Terry pounding out boogie piano riffs. Hell, you just couldn’t stay down.
Another highlight of the night was when he played Merle Haggard’s “Kern River” as a prelude to his own “Dry River,” also from Blue Blvd. On disc it’s a fairly mellow acoustic slide guitar blues but they rocked it out with Chris Miller playing some Robert Randolph style pedal steel against Chris Gaffney’s accordion.
After a short break where Joe Terry had a smoke holding the door open at the fire escape, they came back and played one more “new” song before launching into an extended jam version of the Blaster’s “Marie Marie” that segued right back into an instrumental “So Long Baby, Goodbye” for the closer, bringing the night full circle. It was a thrilling, exhilarating and exhausting show, the kind Dave Alvin and The Guilty Men are famous for.
The old guys jamming away downstairs didn’t know what they were missing.