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‘King of California’ brings unique style to Claremont

If one is lucky, time can bring an artist a certain degree of gratitude, and the decades spent striving and careering can give way to a moment of quiet where one takes stock of one’s blessings. Dave Alvin, the “King of California,” is there. 

“I am a very lucky guy,” the 61-year-old guitarist, singer and songwriter said when reached this week near his Silverlake home. “I know people that are more successful that don’t quite feel that they’re lucky. But I still kind of treasure every gig. I still get nervous before every show because it still seems like my first one.”

And Claremont is lucky to have Mr. Alvin at the Folk Music Center next Saturday, December 3, for an intimate acoustic show. Also on the bill is Covina’s Rick Shea, himself a roots music powerhouse as well. 

It’s been about a decade since Mr. Alvin has played the Folk, and he’s looking forward to the gig. 

“I like Claremont a lot,” he said. “It’s the Paris of the Inland Empire!

“I always like playing there. A few years back you could always see Leonard Cohen there sitting at the bus stop, heading home from grocery shopping.”

Mr. Alvin got his start playing music alongside his brother Phil Alvin in the late ‘70s when they formed the legendary band The Blasters in his hometown of Downey, CA. He left that band to join equally legendary LA punks X in 1986, sticking around long enough to play on their “See How We Are” record. He then released his first solo record, “Romeo’s Escape,” in 1987.

Five records followed, and in 2000 Mr. Alvin’s seventh solo disc, “Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land” won him a Grammy Award for best contemporary folk album. Ten more full-lengths have come since, with the last two—2014’s “Common Ground” and last year’s “Lost Time”—being collaborations with his brother Phil. 

Counting his work with the Blasters, his country-punk-folk offshoot The Knitters (with John Doe, DJ Bonebrake and Exene Cervenka from X and Jonny Ray Bartel from the Red Devils) and his solo work, Mr. Alvin has released 28 records since 1980.

It’s been nearly 40 years in the notoriously rough music business, and he’s still standing, despite sea changes in the industry. The most significant fracture for  artists has been the shrinking revenue for songwriters and musicians due to lower royalty rates paid by streaming music sites, which, combined with the disintegration of physical product sales, has caused better-known artists than Mr. Alvin to close up shop. 

“Playing music period—no matter what kind of music—and hoping to make a living from it, is kind of like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute,” Mr. Alvin opined. “But I really am kind of stupid. I’m stubborn and I’m stupid, and I really don’t know how to do anything else. So you find yourself constantly adapting to the changes. Fortunately I work with a record label [Yep Roc] that’s trying to figure this stuff out and the same time that I’m trying to figure this thing out.

“We’re all in the same boat and we’re trying not to sink.”

The Blasters had the great fortune to be able to tour without a new record, because fans wanted to see them new product or not. “And that’s kind so what I like to do,” Mr. Alvin said. “I just like playing music. Roots music kind of helps that along. If you’re playing top 40 pop music you’re kind of locked into that moment. There’s certainly elements of my audience that only want to hear Marie Marie or Fourth of July, and I understand that. I can be the same way.

“But with roots music, the people that like it tend to be oddballs, and I include myself in that. Because we’re not represented as much in the mainstream press and media, when you gather people together at a show it’s more like a religious service. And that’s the same thing the Grateful Dead had or Black Flag had or Bob Dylan or whomever.”

A new 4-song Phil and Dave Alvin EP, “Hard Traveling,” will be out on Record Store Day, April 15. A new full-length Alvin brothers record will have to wait though until Phil’s fragile health allows. Nothing concrete is pending, but “We’re not done playin’ together,” he said.

In the meantime, the road will be there, as it has been for nearly 40 years now. 

“Yeah…you had to rub it in, huh?” he joked when reminded of his longevity. “I remember in the early days, when I quit my day job as a fry cook in Long Beach, because I started making as much money with the Blasters as I was making as a fry cook off of gigs at the Whisky-a-Go-Go or the Starwood. And I remember it was just terrifying! Over those almost 40 years there have been moments when I’ve freaked out, and moments when I’m deeply in debt, but overall I’m a pretty lucky guy. I’ve got to do a lot of things and play a lot of music and make records, and I’m still able to do it, knock on wood.”

Mr. Alvin circled back to the concept of gratitude once again when assessing his career. 

“Luck has a lot to do with it. You have to have some sort of talent. And you have to have some sort of connection with an audience. But luck is a big part of it. And you have good luck and you have bad luck, and I’ve had both.”

A few tickets remained at press time for Mr. Alvin’s December 3 Folk Music Center. Any fan of folk music, both “loud and quiet,” as Mr. Alvin has said, would be very lucky indeed to snatch them up. 

More information is at davealvin.net, yeproc.com or folkmusiccenter.com

—Mick Rhodes