The Ashgrove was more than a club; it was a legend. Tucked away on Hollywood’s Melrose Avenue, founder Ed Pearl booked bands from Lightnin’ Hopkins to Bill Monroe and everything in between. Watching and learning from the floor were the likes of Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, and two teen brothers from nearby Downey – Phil and Dave Alvin. Inspired by the Ashgrove’s music, the Alvins would ignite a fire in their band, the Blasters.
The original Ashgrove burned down 25 years ago, but the memories live on, infusing Dave Alvin’s latest album, named in honor of the club. Ashgrove (Yep Roc) is Alvin’s first collection of new material in six years. It’s also one of his best albums, which is saying a lot, considering his resumé – Blasters, X, the Knitters, and his long string of solo shots including Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land, which won a Grammy for best traditional folk album in 2000. Yet while the Blasters were famed for their edge and Alvin’s folk forays are cheered for his introspective sense, Ashgrove marries the extremes.
“This is going to sound corny,” Alvin says with a slightly embarrassed chuckle. “But if there’s one Dave Alvin solo record you’ve got to have, this is the one. It’s like, ‘This is what he sounded like.’ There’s a little bit of the acoustic sound, and there’s a lot of the other.”
The title track is pure “other;” tough-toned guitars celebrating the advent of electricity. And tunes like “Rio Grande” are pure country while “The Man in the Bed” and “Somewhere in Time” are modern folk ballads. This blend of influences harkens back to Ashgrove.
Aiding Alvin in crafting the album was co-Ashgrove alum Greg Leisz. A prominent sideman who has played with Bill Frisell, k.d. lang, Joni Mitchell, Wilco, and others, Leisz worked with Alvin on in the Allnighters in 1986 and produced two Alvin solo albums.
“I’m a ‘That-sounds-pretty-good-yeah-it’s-in-tune-next-song’ kind of guy,” Alvin says of Leisz. “He’s the opposite. Same with our playing – he’s orchestral and intricate, my style is ‘Turn it up louder.’ That’s why we make a nice combo.”
Making this record proved it.
“I wanted to make an electric record, but I figured we’d have to do one of those build-it-up-from-the-kick-drum kind of electric records,” Alvin details. “But Greg said, ‘I’ve got this room, man; we can just go in there and jam.’
“We went into this studio called Winslow Court, in Hollywood. It’s about the size of Sun Studios. The engineer is a kid named Craig Adams, and he’s not afraid of loud guitars. So we had my amp right next to me, baffled to limit the effect on the drums, but it still bled. Same with Greg’s guitar. Ninety percent of the leads are live. Later, we reassembled at Mark Linett’s studio, where I’ve done much of my recent work, to record the acoustic songs and overdubs.”
The electricity coursing through the tracks all comes from Alvin’s beat up ’64 Fender Strat through Leisz’ blackface Fender Deluxe.
Acoustic tracks feature Alvin’s ’54 Martin D-18 and ’57 Martin 000-18. Leisz augmented the sound with his own electric and acoustic guitars as well as slidework and pedal steel.
Alvin’s backing band was an enlisted rhythm section made up of bassist Bob Glaub and drummer Don Heffington. All boasted roots from the Ashgrove.
Still, Alvin’s songs remain personal – perhaps the most reflective he has ever penned. Many tunes focus on time and growing old. “It was a combination of my dad dying, and just being on the road. Time on the road is elastic. You try to explain it to people who don’t go on the road, and they really don’t understand. Plus, there are things that happen in your life where you come go, ‘Oh, man!’ That’s what triggered a lot of these songs.”
Several Ashgrove cuts were written collaboratively and have appeared on co-authors’ albums. “Somewhere in Time” was co-authored by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Louie Perez. Alvin also co-wrote “Rio Grande” with Tom Russell, and it was recorded in a dramatically different mood on Russell’s ’02 album, Borderland. Alvin also cut a different version of “The Man in the Bed,” a powerful song inspired by his father, for Parkinsong, a two-CD set benefiting research for Parkinson’s disease.
The original Ashgrove may be history, but a revived club recently opened its doors on Santa Monica Pier. Still, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Joe Turner, Earl Scruggs, and the others who sparked the music are long gone. Alvin hasn’t forgotten those sounds of his formative years, and that’s where this new album begins.
Photo: Ken Settle.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.