WEST OF THE WEST • Dave Alvin
Dave Alvin's West Of The West finds the California native casting his mind back to a conversation with his mother 35 years ago, having seen an older compatriot named John Stewart perform a number of his own songs including "Daydream Believer," "July, You're A Woman," and "California Bloodlines" on television. Alvin's mother tells her then-14-year-old son that, like Stewart, he too had California bloodlines. As a recording artist, Stewart is probably best remembered for his song "Gold." With the signature warble of Stevie Nicks on the duet, Stewart sings,
I jump into my car and I throw in my guitar
My heart beatin' time with my breathin'
Drivin' over Canaan, singin' to my soul
There's people out there turnin' music into gold
As twenty-somethings, we were up to our bloodshot eyes with the seductive world of 1970s California. With or without mind-altering substances, it was all good from 10,000 miles away, here in Australia. Before Google and without record jacket lyrics, we knew nothing of Cannan, and so sang "drivin' novocated, singin' to my soul, there's people out there turnin' music into gold." Being "novocated" was obviously some kind of alternative consciousness, and driving in such a state sounded too cool, up there with going "Eight Miles High" with the Byrds or being perusaded by Jackson Browne to "Take It Easy."
Dave Alvin grew up there and became one of the west coast's premier practitioners of roots music, and a staunch advocate of things Californian. Aside from a brief but stirring flirtation with Appalachia on Public Domain, he has remained West Coast to the core, through albums such as Out In California, King Of California, and his recent return to the seminal heartland of California blues on Ashgrove.
So it was particularly fitting that he tackle the great idea of a record of deeply Californian songs; to paraphrase him, not just his favorite songs about CA, but ones he could sing well, and bring something new to, musically. And to consider a breadth of artists as wide as Steve Gillette (or Jim Ringer, who actually made it on to the disc) and Captain Beefheart for the menu was truly inspired.
The players on West Of The West include long time Alvin sidemen Greg Leisz on all manner of guitars, Bob Glaub on bass and Don Heffington on skins. Chris Gaffney of The Hacienda Brothers lent his sound to the vocalizing, filling out the West Coast soul trust.
It's like a ride through California, making stops in Bakersfield, San Francisco, Malibu, and many other spots, over a generous period of time. Alvin treats Merle Haggard and Brian Wilson with equal respect and aplomb, and the closing version of "Surfer Girl" is sublime. It's a superb look into the West Coast kaleidoscope of one of the great American artists of our day.
• Michael Hansen