Hailing from the Los Angeles area working class suberb of Downey, California, you wouldn't expect a band like The Blasters to come from way out on the west coast of the United States. A band that can be classiified as rockabilly, blues, country, cajun, jazz, and of course just plain 'ol rock n roll for the most part, they had the sound, style and spirit of backwoods hillbilly boys and southern bluesmen right out of the gate, and over the course of three albums and one live EP in the early to mid eighties, they set out to bring this music they loved so much to whoever cared to listen, and did such a great job of it they seemed to not just play the music but become the music itself. Call it what you want, but The Blasters liked to simply call it American Music. And that's exactly
what it is.
The Blasters - Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings is all of the original Blasters output, period. Three albums and one EP that take us on a 51 song journey through some of the most inspired rock n roll produced over the last three decades. And as songwriter/guitarist Dave Alvin says "We weren't the greatest band ever, but we meant every damn note we played". And this music sounds exactly like that statement would lead you to believe it would.
Things kick off with a collection of tunes from the self-titled debut "The Blasters". A half originals, half covers album of sorts (seven originals, five covers) The Blasters are quick to show over the course of twelve songs what indeed made them so special. With rock solid originals like "Border Radio", "American Music", "This Is It", and "Marie Marie" (a top 20 hit in England for Shakin' Stevens) mixing seamlessly with obscure classics such as "I'm Shakin", "I Love You So", and "Stop The Clock" from years gone past, it is indeed hard to tell where The Blasters end and the oldies begin. Making the classics their own, yet paying perfect homage to the history of the music they love so much, they took all that was old and made it new again and took what was new and played it they way the cats way back when used to play it. With no less a band then Queen checking them out on a tour of England in 1980, they told The Blasters they would be honered to have them open for them on the Western leg of their upcoming tour of America. And so The Blasters were off and running.
With lead guitarist Dave Alvin growing as a songwriter and musician (today one of the best players in the business) The Blasters put away the cover tunes for their next effort "Non Fiction" and the resulting album is a uniform near masterpiece. Tougher sounding then their previous effort and with only two covers counted among eleven songs, most every one of these songs sound as if it was ripped from somewhere in rock n rolls rich storied past and brought full circle and up to date. With America at the time of release (1983) deep in an economic recession and a batch of new songs to come up with, Dave Alvin touches on themes of the great depression and tales of hard times for hardened people in songs such as "Bus Station" "Jubilee Train" "Boomtown" and Long White Cadillac", but also on good times during hard times in songs such as "Red Rose", "One More Dance", "It Must Be Love" and brillant covers such as "Barefoot Rock" and "Tag Along". More guitar driven then their first effort and with a louder toughened up sound, the album is once again brillant for keeping the spirit of the old alive in a group of new songs that sound as familiar as any Chuck Berry, Elvis Presely, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Carl Perkins song of years gone by, yet without sounding dated or unoriginal. With Dave Alvin and band playing it straight and true and brother Phil wailing away on vocals like a coyote caught in a bear trap, this collection of songs that comprise "Non-Fiction" are ones for the ages indeed.
Next up for The Blasters was the 1985 release of "Hardline". An album that can best be described as "roots rock", Hardline was a troubled project from the start. Having recorded the entire album, including six songs with a horn section, the record company (Warner) suddenly decided they wouldn't release the album with horns because "horns weren't cool", so those songs were discarded or rewritten and recorded with different arrangements. Secondly, Warner decided to assign an outside producer to the project when The Blasters had always been self produced, with singer Phil Alvin leading the way. Also, the ever present rollicking piano of old schooler Gene Taylor had been reeled in considerably in an attempt to "modernize" The Blasters sound. And to top it all off brothers Dave and Phil Alvin's mother became ill with cancer during the recording, making things all the more difficult. The resulting album is a good effort with lots of rootsy, bluesy, gospel flavor poured into the mix. Songs like "Rock n Roll Will Stand" "Samson and Delilah", and "Help You Dream" carry on in typical Blasters fashion, and yet others such as the excellent "Dark Night", Creedence Clearwater Revival like "Common Man", John Mellencamp penned "Colored Lights", and album opener "Trouble Bound", add something new to the mix. It's good stuff to be sure, but something is missing. Call it the spirit of the music or perhaps it's soul. But Hardline does not ultimately succeed on the many levels that the previous two Blaster albums succeeded on. Produced, a bit polished, and cleaned up of horns and piano to some extent, it's a good roots oriented rock record that stays true to the band even if the band isn't quite true to it. Over a year in the making, it was to be the final studio recording of the "original" Blasters.
Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings finishes up with a rare 1982 EP recorded during The Blasters first Europeon tour called "Over There". A glimpse of the band live in the early years it's mostly a collection of barn burning covers and a few originals that finish up this collection with 11 songs of live Blaster music performed the only way The Blasters knew how to perform music. With sweat on their brow, fire in their veins, and a deep love for the American music they cared for so much in their hearts. And it's a fitting end to a fine, fine collection of music. Also included in this set are eight unreleased and outtake tracks from various moments in The Blasters career which are scattered here and there throughout the album. And for the most part they are gems.
The Blasters would come to an end after the tour in support of Hardline. With brothers Phil and Dave Alvin's continuing sibling rivalry (brother Phil started the band, but little brother Dave soon took over as he wrote the songs and played amazing
guitar) pressure for a hit record, and Dave growing tired of trying to please himself, the record company, and his brother so far as songwriting was concerned, it was all too much to take. Sensing that things weren't quite the same, after a gig with the Fabulous Thunderbirds one night, piano player Gene Taylor quit the band and simply hopped on the Thunderbirds bus at the end of the gig and took up with them. The Blasters would finish the tour without him, but soon after Dave Alvin saw his own way out and and jumped at it, as well.
The Blasters would continue off and on throughout the years without Dave to play gigs. Because as Gene Taylor likes to say, "The Blasters will always be. The Blasters will always continue". But without the original drummer, no piano or horn players to speak of, and of course with no Dave Alvin and his brilliant guitar work, they are more like a Blasters cover band then The Blasters themselves. But once in a great while, when the stars are aligned just right and the moon is a bit full, brother Dave comes around from a busy solo career and the original boys get back together for a few "reunion" shows to let it rock once again. And on those rare nights I can assure you without reservation, rock n roll stands once again. Just like it used to. And in some quarters like it still does.
The "original" Blasters Are:
Dave Alvin - Lead Guitar
Phil Alvin - Vocals/guitar
John Bazz - Bass
Bill Bateman - Drums
Gene Taylor - Piano
Lee Allen - Tenor Sax
Steve Berlin - Baritone Sax