: Dave Alvin’s North Bay gigs are a map of disappearing night clubs. –>
Through the years with Dave Alvin
By Gabe Meline
A few fuzzy photographs are the only mementos Dave Alvin has of the Ashgrove, the Los Angeles nightclub where he spent his teenage nights absorbing the music of the Rev. Gary Davis, Buddy Guy and Big Joe Turner. As a reflective snapshot, he’s dedicated his most recent release, Ashgrove (Yep Roc), to the enduring inspiration of the long-defunct blues club that burned down 30 years ago.
There are also not too many Sonoma County clubs left that can proudly boast to having hosted the Grammy-winning singer and songwriter, though he’s been all over the county; 20 years on the roadhouse circuit has turned Alvin into a veritable Forrest Gump of area nightspots. In fact, his local appearances dot the outline of a disappearing history.
It might have been different way back in the early ’80s, when Alvin and the Blasters first roared into town at the El Rancho Tropicana hotel with Los Lobos. The hotel ballroom’s low ceilings gave an extra punch to Alvin’s loud Stratocaster, and a couple of audience members even got caught smoking pot upstairs in T-Bone Burnett’s hotel room.
Longtime Alvin fan Tim Yates remembers another Blasters show at the legendary Cotati Cabaret. “You had to dance, there were no ifs, ands or buts about it,” he says. Just about everyone played the Cabaret in those days, but the night the Blasters tore the roof off is one of the best-remembered.
In the late ’80s, the Studio KAFE hosted an “in the round” evening with Dave Alvin and four other songwriters: Tom Russell, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and a girl from Louisiana named Lucinda Williams. Alvin had just started playing solo and was awkwardly beginning to find his voice, but it’s a safe bet that no one asked for their money back.
More solo nights ensued, and Alvin just got better and better. The artsy décor of the now-defunct Cafe This in Railroad Square served as Alvin’s backdrop in the early ’90s, and soon after, his tweed guitar case was unpacked in downtown Cotati again.
Gary Wysocky, another longtime fan, will never forget the personal touch Alvin added to his late-’90s show at the Powerhouse in Sebastopol. “‘Fourth of July’ was the first song my daughter ever learned,” he remembers, “and he dedicated it to her.”
Alvin had finally found a solid working group, but has since returned solely as part of band-reunion tours. The Knitters, featuring X’s John Doe and Exene Cervenka, rolled into Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre in 1999. Alvin played tasteful riffs in the background and cracked a rare smile when an overzealous attendee leapt onstage and lifted her shirt to the crowd.
The Mystic also hosted a couple of raucous Blasters reunions a few years ago, and much was made at the time of Alvin’s long-standing spat with brother and lead singer, Phil Alvin. No bad blood was present onstage, only a raging testament to rock and roll. Walking offstage, dripping with sweat, Dave even threw his arm around Phil’s shoulder.
Alvin has found a home away from home up in our neck of the woods, but can we keep finding places for him to play? The El Rancho Tropicana is now a ghastly strip mall and the Cotati Cabaret is a Reconstructionist synagogue. The Studio KAFE is an armed forces recruiting center, Cafe This an empty storefront and the Inn of the Beginning, a jazz bistro. Even the Powerhouse has been sold, soon to become a wine-tasting room.
This Thursday, Alvin is back in town with his band at the Los Robles Lodge. He’ll be singing about the Ashgrove–about all the nights of unforgettable performances, about yearning for a return to the smoky little nightclub in a modern world filled with highways and tract houses–and he may not know just how true his words ring.
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men play the Los Robles Lodge Thursday, Aug. 19, at 8pm. 1985 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa. $15-$18. 707.545.6330.
From the August 18-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.