There are few active bands with as strong a claim to both the inception of a purely American musical movement, and the inspirational (and perspirational) performances with a wildly enthusiastic dedication to their craft, as Southern California’s The Blasters. Almost from their very first days as a group in 1979, The Blasters have proven to be a force to be reckoned with, both on recordings and on stage. The current Blasters line-up is comprised of powerful lead vocalist Phil Alvin, drummer Bill Bateman, bassist John Bazz, and guitarist Keith Wyatt. Prior to a 4-night run of June concert dates in the Upper Midwest, Maximum Ink’s veteran journalist Sal Serio got the great Phil Alvin to reflect on his career, life, death, and the definition of “rockabilly”.
MAXIMUM INK: I noticed this is a pretty short tour run, just four Midwest dates. June 17 at Lee’s Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis, then the Wisconsin date at Turner Hall in Milwaukee on Thursday, June 18, followed by two nights at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn, IL.
PHIL ALVIN: Yeah, we threw in Milwaukee and Minneapolis to help pay for the trip, because we’re going out to do the Fitzgerald’s shows in Chicago.
MI: Do small tours like this come up because The Blasters go over so well in the Midwest?
PA: Yeah, usually the Midwest is pretty good. Fitzgerald’s is always good, and the last time we played in Minneapolis it was a sold out show. I’ve never played Turner Hall [in Milwaukee], usually we play Shank Hall.
MI: When you play concerts, you always have an old acoustic guitar.
PA: Oh, the Kay?
MI: Yeah! Have you had that for a long time?
PA: Actually, the guy who played piano for The Blasters, the great Gene Taylor, bought that in the middle 70s or something. Then he gave it to a guy named Gary Massey [who] used to play in bands with us, played really well, like Jimmy Reed. It’s sort of a Jimmy Reed guitar. I needed a guitar… I had this original Budweiser guitar [laughs] and I traded Gary the Budweiser guitar for the Kay, and he traded it to some guy for a Fender Bassman. Then he gave the Fender Bassman to Cesar Rosas from [Los] Lobos, who got Gary a Telecaster, and everybody was happy. So, I’ve been playing that guitar since the early 90s.
MI: What do you think the fan’s expectations are of seeing The Blasters without your brother Dave in the band?
PA: Well, David hasn’t been in the band for almost 30 years, so the fans know that. The Blasters are a great live band, so they expect a good, rockin’, set, and I’m sure we’ll be able to deliver that. All the players are original guys [plus] Keith Wyatt, who’s been in the band for 20 years, so I hate to put him in as a “newcomer”. [Keith] is a fantastic guitarist and well-known in his own right.
MI: So, The Blasters are “The Blasters” regardless of who’s on guitar… right?
PA: Sure! That’s always been true. You know, David’s a great guitar player and songwriter. I love my brother, and I’ve been out with him, so that’s sort of been a damper on The Blasters, a little bit.
MI: It was such a great album you did with Dave, the Grammy nominated “Common Ground” CD of Big Bill Broonzy songs, which was a touchstone moment celebrating the music of your youth.
PA: Sure, yeah! We both were, and still are, Big Bill Broonzy fans. So are The Blasters [laughing]! It was a good collaboration, and we’re collaborating on another record right now. So, that will be out, and then we’ve got to get a Blasters album out, sometime, hopefully this year.
MI: I believe the most recent Blasters album is “Fun On Saturday Night” from 2012.
PA: Yeah, so that’s three years old now. It’s about time to do another one.
MI: Around the same time of the last Blasters album, 2012, you had a near-death experience. I’ve read Dave saying that your nearly passing helped to wake him up to the fact that you two should make amends, because of the realization that we all have to deal with mortality.
PA: It got me to realize it [laughing]!
MI: Was that a heart attack?
PA: No, it was a septic reaction to an abscessed tooth, that swelled my throat up. I could breathe, but then they knocked me out, tried to etomidate me but they couldn’t, so I was on low oxygen for a very long time. So, my heart stopped when they got me to the emergency room in Valencia, Spain. An angelic and very courageous young doctor, Dr. Mariella Anaya Sifuentes, beat me back to [my] heart beating, and gave me a tracheotomy, so, kudos to her. Everything seems to be okay now. It was pretty strange to have life flash in front of [me] like that. But, that was three years ago, and I’ve been okay for at least two!
MI: Did that experience change you in any other ways?
PA: Sure. I never had any serious medical issues other than a lousy knee, and never really considered mortality. Now, I’m thankful every day that I’m not dead [laughs]. It was a very strange event. I was out, I felt nothing and saw nothing until I came back in to existence. When I came back… there’s a certain peace in nothingness. The thing I remember most is coming back in to consciousness. The spark of life came back, even before I could see black, or anything. There was this thing that came back in to existence, and I ponder that. I’m not religious, in fact I’m anti-religious, but it reminded me of the old Epicurean saying, “where I am, death is not, and where death is, I am not. So, why fear death?” But, I make an addendum to that. It’s not the death you fear, it’s the dying. Life is a big thing, and I’m thankful every day for the great doctor who beat me back in to existence.
MI: It almost sounds like a rebirth.
PA: For sure! It is.
MI: I noticed you have a masters degree in mathematics!
PA: Yeah, I have a masters in math. I’m a Set Theorist, and there are applications of that to artificial intelligence. Geez, I haven’t done anything with that for a long time.
MI: I wondered because it looked like you were teaching in a University.
PA: I did for a while, yeah. That was in the late 80s, early 90s. I taught at Long Beach State while I was getting my B.S., and was actually teaching when The Blasters started. Then, left that job for this one… and wonder sometimes if that was the right thing to do [laughs]!
MI: When you were growing up in Downey, California, with your family, is that where you first heard rock ‘n roll music?
PA: I had a cousin who was a real rock ‘n roll queen. She was my favorite cousin, and she was playing rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n roll, ever since I could remember. I used to imitate Big Joe Turner when I was 5 and 6 years old, from her record collection, and record parties when she would babysit us. Downey was a part of Southeast Los Angeles [and had] a lot of great blues musicians play out here. So, I met them when I was young… Lloyd Glenn, and Al Morgan who was a great jazz bass player who played with Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and Louis Jordan. By the time we were 14 or 15, we were singing and playing with them. There were a lot of “Okies” and “Arkies” over in Bell Gardens, next to us, and they were playing rockabilly, even though I didn’t know that was it’s name then. Yeah, this was a good area to learn from. It was where I first heard rock ‘n roll, and have been playing it ever since then.
MI: So, Big Joe Turner was one of your earliest influences on your vocal style?
PA: For sure. Then Joe Turner became a good friend of mine. We were Joe’s back-up band when we were like, 16, 17, and 18 years old. Joe played with The Blasters a few times, and was a friend throughout life. He used to come over here, to my parents, for dinner. T-Bone Walker was another good friend of ours. We learned a lot from them. Half the time I thanked them, and the other half of the time I condemned them [laughs]. You know, that’s how we met Lee Allen, the great saxophone player, out in Watts in South Central L.A. when he was playing with Joe Turner. We went out there to see him [when] we were like, 15. That became one of the big influences for all of us. Lee Allen was just the greatest musician.
MI: I first got turned on to The Blasters via the self-titled album on the Slash label in the early 80s. At the time The Blasters were both associated with the L.A. punk scene, and lumped in with the 80s rockabilly revival. Was that a help or a hindrance to your career?
PA: We tried not to be pigeon-holed in any way. We did get pulled in to it, even though I always hated the word “rockabilly”. It sounded so silly. But, it allowed The Blasters to play with the energy we did, and to bring a more blues-based style in to the whole punk scene. We played all the shows with Circle Jerks, Black Flag, X… who of course are our great friends, and it was a great time. I think we did a little bit to help start what’s now called “Americana”, and that’s something I take pride in.
MI: Any closing words for your Midwest fans who are thinking about these upcoming gigs?
PA: Yeah, come out and we’ll rock the place!(2004) Page Views Blasters Online:
• Website • Facebook • Wiki
CD: Fun On Saturday Night Record Label: Rip Cat Records
• Purchase Fun On Saturday Night on Amazon
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