Lightning, thunder, rain and even the destructive power of tornadoes touched down and threatened to bring the river city to its knees. Inside the brick walls of Off Broadway that elemental power took form in a musical ferocity that rivaled the cold bitch that is mother nature. Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones hit the stage with guns a-blazing, using the power of music to psychically keep the storms at bay.
The rain began to hit the tin roof that lead out to the smoking area as Kevin Gordon opened his set. His sound rested nicely between the Louisiana swamp blues of Tony Joe White and singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. A native Louisiana boy now residing in Nashville, he wore black with his hollow-body Gibson strapped to his shoulders. A destructive, muddy, tremolo-drenched guitar tone gave his songs a lonesome mourn as he performed the title cut of his latest album "Gloryland." His songs bore a stream of consciousness air with a careful literacy that finds its power somewhere between Bukowski and the aforementioned Van Zandt.
The highlight of his set was the song "Colfax," a 10-minute epic of a junior high school night in Louisiana and a journey from the sexual coming of age as a preteen to a loss of innocence in the face of racism of that time. This loss of innocence shone through in the last few lines: "Just kept on marching/straight ahead/straight ahead/kept on marching." In the song, the young narrator moves forward past the racism that lurked around the football field in the presence of the Imperial Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
The storm raged outside the walls of Off Broadway. Murmurs about tornadoes and the imminent destruction of St. Louis circulated as Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones took the stage. The opening notes of "Harlan County Line" signaled to the crowd that the storm was not going to take the band or anyone in attendance for that matter. Alvin's slicing blues guitar lines landed somewhere between Middle-Eastern modes and the Mississippi Delta and cut the tension like a knife through a stick of butter. As the band kicked into the main groove, the powerhouse that is the Guilty Ones defied the destruction outside. There was a sense that they were going to single-handedly battle the elements: They, not mother nature, would tear down the club.
With his distinctive smile, piercing blue eyes and gruff baritone voice, Alvin spoke to the crowd: "This is the third time playing Off Broadway when a tornado came through." It was in that moment that the crowd knew it was in store for a night filled with history and Alvin's distinctive blues-fueled, country-inspired songs and guitar playing. The Guilty Ones -- Lisa Pankratz on Drums, Brad Fordham on bass and his right-hand man Chris Miller on second guitar -- are a powerful and tight band. The groove between Pankratz's powerful drumming fit perfectly into the pocket-toting bass of Fordham. The backing provided the perfect freedom for Alvin's songs to breath and the open range for Miller and his guitar work.
"This is a blues city," he said. "We've been playing it all night, and I'm just announcing it now." While there is a healthy dose of country and rockabilly to Alvin's songs and playing, it is the blues that is at the heart of everything that he does. It is in his history: from his work with his brother (Phil Alvin) in the Blasters, to X and his extensive solo work. It is the blues that fuels him; it is evident in his voice, his story telling and his guitar. His lineage with the Blasters was on display with the song "Long White Cadillac," a song that was sent out as a tribute to his brother. "As most of you know my brother's been ill," Alvin said. "I would like to send this out to him. I know that I can't sing as good as him, but I can get all the words right."
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones offered up a nightcap that left the crowd wanting more and starving for that sound that makes Alvin unique. The set offered a greasy plate of songs that included Blasters classics "Border Radio" and "Marie Marie." Sandwiched between those tunes was a version of Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" that came close to the dirty funk side of Alvin's R&B influence. That spellbinding version, especially with Fordham and Pankratz's groove which made Dylan's lyrics come alive. Alvin and Chris Miller provided the perfect slice of country inspired blues guitar that made this highlight a piece of southern-fried heaven.