IN TUNE: Kill me now. After 38 years of nourishing my soul with live music, I wonder whether I’ll ever experience a night like this again. Sometimes a band is on fire, in perfect sync. The audience is stoked. The musicians exchange knowing smiles and half-glances. Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women gave us one those nights.
I’ve never written the following sentence in a review before, but there’s no other way to say it:
You had to be there.
You had to feel the passionate fury of the Guilty Women, jackhammering as hard as the Blasters, Friday night at City Winery.
You had to look closely and convince yourself you weren’t listening to a young Linda Ronstadt whenever Christy McWilson sang, especially on the heartbreaking “Here in California.”
And you had to try hard not to swing and sway, bop and hop, as one of the best white barroom bluesman of any era made his ode to “The Boss of the Blues,” Big Joe Turner, the centerpiece of the evening.
All this and virtuoso blues bassist Sarah Brown, too.
Taking a cue from one of Turner’s songs, Alvin might as well call his crew the Honeydrippers — and I mean that with respect and admiration (and in the case of drummer Lisa Pankratz, adoration).
Like a jazz quartet, the Guilty Women took turns in the spotlight, wowing with their chops. The ballads, forged like fine crystal, tugged at that place in the heart stirred by the mournful whistle of a distant train. The rockers, meanwhile, came in hip-shaking barrages, full of swing and sweet soul, that released a Niagra Falls of endorphins.Cindy Cashdollar
McWilson, a bandleader in her own right, played Exene to Alvin’s John Doe. And pedal-steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar, she of the six Grammy Awards (“Five more than me and Milli Vanilli combined,” Dave said), took the turns like a Vette hugging the white line.
Dave, 55, likes to call this group a loud, bad-ass folk rock band. When they’re out of tune, he says, they turn up the amps. Yet it’s the luscious honky-tonk boogie that sets this unit apart from any he’s ever played with — even the Knitters.
The ladies interpret Alvin’s tales of broken hearts, musty motel rooms and long, lonesome drives down dark highways like no other (Whatever New York Times Magazine writer dubbed Springsteen “This Generation’s Steinbeck” never met this guy). The gals have also brought out what might be some of his best singing, that deep, growly vibrato getting more attention than his pickin,’ with Cashdollar picking up many of the leads.
It’s understandable that Alvin would dissolve The Guilty Men after the death from liver cancer two years ago of his best friend and All-Star utility player (accordian, guitar, dobro, you name it), Chris Gaffney.
The replacement is no gimmick, though. It’s the “Seeger Sessions” with balls, fire and kick. After two years of constant performing, the band is only getting hotter.
Dave & the GW did several songs from their debut album, spliced with a few covers and a pan-full of Alvin chestnuts, including “Fourth of July” as the opener (if it‘s not near the end, it‘s usually an encore), as well as “Marie Marie,” “Long White Cadillac,” and others.
Extended versions of shoulda-been-hits like “Abilene” never let go, especially when Alvin spread those black-jeaned legs wide and let fly. McWilson, meanwhile, outdid her own “Potter’s Field” with Kate Wolf’s “Here in California.”
Still, it wasn’t until Dave displayed one of the shiniest gems in his canon, the metaphoric “Dry River,” that Pankratz got to shine, scissor-handing through a skins solo while Cashdollar intermittently picked the pedal. Drawn from the dried-up waterway that once ran through Alvin’s Downey, CA hometown, “Dry River” is actually a song of faith, not only that the skies will open and the mighty river will return, but that another type of hole will be filled: “Someday it’s gonna rain / Someday it’s gonna pour / Someday this old heart of mine will fall in love once more….”
Fitting, then, that after “Haley’s Comet” (co-written with the brilliant Tom Russell), the band closed the show with a jitterbugging, yank-the-folks-out-of-their-seats version of a song Dave said was the answer to all of our philosophical questions. CLICK HERE:
Dave has clearly changed. Last time around, McWilson and Cashdollar swaddled his heavy heart, coming off the deaths of both Gaffney and gorgeous Guilty Women fiddler, Amy Farris. (SEE: Soaring on angels’ wings). As the two sang “Potter‘s Field” on the City Winery stage that February night, McWilson drew nearer to Dave. At times he turned to her with the kind of vulnerability I’ve never seen through 30 years of following him. As the song ended, Alvin closed his eyes, while she dabbed hers with a napkin.
Tonight Dave revealed that he’s been spending time with his brilliant but cantankerous brother, Phil, the Blasters lead singer, and even recorded a song with him for an upcoming CD (“It doesn’t mean I have to play in a band with him,” Alvin joked).
Yes, whatever will be, will be. But David Alvin has opened the door to a spiritual experience that, like the best of the blues, can lift you from whatever crime of the heart — petty or not — you might be carrying, make your heart dance like everyone’s watching, and remind you why his brand of American roots music REALLY matters.
It isn’t pop, rock or oldies. It’s not about the couple of songs you know. When I say it’s as close as I’ll ever come to entirely engaged spirituality, consider the countless churches across this country — from Harlem to Haight-Ashbury — where preachers and their choirs still stir the spirit with song.
Now imagine your soul being lifted from its own troubles, if but for one night, during a majestic session that Dave called “The Church of the Live Gig.”
We’ve extolled the virtues of City Winery often in these spaces, but New York’s only operating winery deserves kudos — it also has become THE premiere spot for singer-songwriters, with a vibe that Dave Alvin described as “like the Bottom Line, only nicer.”
Wine lovers can find plenty to excite them; the service is always top-notch (you can’t believe you’re in the city); and the food is more than up to par. Be sure when you go to say hello to Christina (right). Tell her the guy who publishes CLIFFVIEWPILOT sent you.
Check out the menu and the lineup: CITY WINERY EVENTS
Also, there’s a funky behind-the-scenes video worth a view:
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