Classic Americana Albums: Dave Alvin “Ashgrove”

Yep Roc, 2004

The works of Dave Alvin will need no introduction to most AUK readers, but I wanted to highlight this particular album. Released in 2004 it takes its name from the famed L.A. nightspot where Alvin and his brother Phil used to watch the great bluesmen of the time such as Big Joe Turner and T. Bone Walker play.

The title track itself has a real driving blues feel to it with some excellent tight slightly distorted guitar work. In it, he reflects that despite travelling all over the country playing his music he needs to go back to his roots as that’s where he belongs. This is his reason for doing what he does “all the old blues men have all passed on and I’m out on this highway travelin’ town to town. Settin’ up my gear and then I’m tearin’ it down. Turnin’ up my guitar, standin’ up on the stage I’m just tryin’ to raise the ghosts up out of their graves”.

‘Rio Grand’ has a more reflective country feel to it with a delicate steel guitar. It finds him looking for a lost love who has left, which may have had something to do with his drinking. It is inconclusive whether he actually finds her. A sad but hopeful song.

Black Sky has a powerful, funky feel. He goes to a graveyard to visit a friend, maybe for answers but none seem to be forthcoming “I wake up every mornin’, try the best I can to make it one more day in a world I don’t understand”. The soaring guitar work on the track really demonstrates what a virtuoso he is.

The Kitchen Sink Song ‘Nine Volt Heart’ is another reflective track about the struggles of a couple trying to cope with a lack of money and losing themselves trying to escape by listening to music on the radio. “The radio was his toy

The longest track ‘Out of Control’  highlights the pitfalls of trying to get out of the rut he was born into. He carries a gun while sitting in the car as his girlfriend is “in that motel room. Puttin’ on a show for some chump. Well baby’s got to make a living”. He is someone reflecting on his situation and trying to take things easy and one step ahead but sometimes things get out of control.

‘Everett Ruess’ documents the extraordinary tale of an American artist and poet who was only in his twenties and disappeared in the High Sierra in 1934. It tells the story from his point of view. It is a very creative piece of writing and not the usual subject matter you would expect.

That can also be said for the poignant ‘The Man in the Bed isn’t Me’ which imagines his father’s thoughts and feelings as he lays dying in hospital. It is a song that many who may have had an illness can easily identify with.

Perhaps the bluesiest song on the album is ‘Black Haired Girl’. Alvin thinks he recognizes a girl he used to know years ago as he sees her at 3 a.m. in a petrol station. He feels uneasy asking her if it is her and again it is left unresolved if this is indeed a long-lost girlfriend.

It is an album of light and shade reflective quieter tracks sit very easily alongside the more up-tempo blues numbers. His rich voice, excellent musicianship coupled with imaginative writing make this an album to be savoured.

Definitely, one to catch up with if you missed it the first time around.

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