Travelin’ Man: Dave Alvin returns to the road with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, performs in Homer Tuesday night
About seven years ago, acclaimed singer-songwriters Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore embarked on a musical collaboration that drew from their common roots in the blues. They released a well-received 2018 album, “Downey to Lubbock,” that included reworkings of blues, rock and country songs along with a couple of originals. Their subsequent touring, both as an acoustic duo and with Alvin’s band The Guilty Ones (drummer Lisa Pankratz, bassist Brad Fordham, and guitarist Chris Miller) showcased their deep song catalogs, including Alvin’s work with the Blasters and his solo career, Gilmore’s work with the Flatlanders and his solo albums, along with some well-chosen covers.
On August 22, Alvin, Gilmore, and The Guilty Ones will perform at the Center for the Arts in Homer. It’s Alvin’s first east-coast tour since before the pandemic. It’s also his first lengthy trek away from his native California since he was diagnosed and treated for three kinds of cancer, a battle that sidelined him from making music during much of the pandemic.
Alvin is looking forward to hitting the road again with Gilmore, promising their rock ‘n’ roll rhythm and blues band will “blow the roof off that place” in Homer. “The show tends to have its loud sections and its quiet sections,” Alvin says. “But when it's loud, it's loud!”
The pair just released a new single, “Borderland,” a song written by Gilmore and David Hammond that pays tribute to the Rio Grande. They’re also at work on their second album together, which they hope to complete this fall.
In a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, the 67-year-old Alvin recently spoke about his battle with cancer, the upcoming tour, working with Gilmore, his other band The Third Mind, his brother Phil, and what he considers the best song he ever wrote.
Q: I'm glad you're coming back to Central New York. But I guess you're glad to be coming back anywhere! Anyway, I’m glad that you got through your ordeal, and I'm sure you are, too. But what's it been like?
Dave Alvin: I’m not quite through it yet. The thing about cancer is, you don't beat it, you just learn to live with it because one of my myriad cancers has a habit now of returning. And it's come back two times after the initial surgery to remove it. So, all in all, I've had three surgeries. And right now, I'm in remission. If I can make it to October, it'll be gone for a year. But I just did a bunch of tests last week, and we'll see. Yeah, it's a drag.
Q: You had to stick close to your doctors in California for a while, but you've been getting out across the country more lately.
DA: This is the furthest I will have gone. Well, technically, last year, I went out of the country and did one of those cruises that was for like five days and just down to the tip of Baja, and then back up. But this next tour is like 3000 miles for two weeks. That's the longest tour I've done and the furthest I've been away from the pesky doctors. Let's see how it goes.
Q: How have you been holding up with the touring that you've done so far?
DA: I have good days and bad days because another part of the fun of cancer is what the disease does to you and then there's the issue of what the treatments do to you. And you can make a case that the treatments are worse than the disease. And in reality, that's not true. But it seems like that sometimes.
Q: During the pandemic, a lot of people were doing those livestreams, but you were pretty silent for a long time. And I didn't know what was going on until that Rolling Stone article came out in April 2022. And it was like, “Oh, that's why he didn't do anything.”
DA: Yeah, we were keeping it pretty close – I didn't want to make a big deal out of it. But it was a weird little bit of good luck to get diagnosed with cancer at the same time that basically everything shut down. So I could go for a year, a year and a half without doing anything.
One of the drawbacks of the chemotherapy that I had was neuropathy in my hands and feet. My hands swelled to twice their normal size, so they looked like Mickey Mouse's hands. I couldn't even touch a guitar for about seven months because if I touched the guitar strings, it was like touching a razor blade. So, yeah, I felt bad about not doing any kind of Zoom shows and all that, but I couldn't play guitar.
Q: I know you had a terminal diagnosis at one point – that must make you focus or reassess things in your life.
DA: Yeah. I don't want to sound pollyannish or goody-two-shoes, but you really do learn to treasure each moment. Or at least try to, so that even the bad days are good. In the midst of putting up with all the bullsh*t of daily life, you just go “Oh, look at that flower. Wow!”.
Shelly Haber, who managed the Blasters and, and then managed my solo career for its first eight years, just died last week. And Shelly had exactly what I had: the same cancer, stage four. And she opted to have hers treated differently than I did. And so that kind of brought it all back for me. It was very sad.
You learn to appreciate little things. And I try not to get upset by big and little things.
Q: Well, let's turn toward turning to more cheerful matters. You're coming back here with Jimmie Dale Gilmore? When I last talked to you in 2017, that was kind of the beginning of you two getting out on the road together. Looking back, did you think it would go as well as it has? And how are you liking continuing this partnership with him?
DA: I love it. We're going back to the studio in October to finish our next album together. We're about two-thirds done; we only got about three or four other things to cut, then it’ll be done.
I love playing with Jimmie Dale. I'm gonna sound pollyannish again, but I like things that are fun, and playing with Jimmie Dale is fun. I don't know whether it's his Tibetan Buddhist philosophical outlook on life or what it is, but he definitely is living entirely in the moment. And that's fun to be around.
And he's game to do just about – well, I won't say anything; If I say, “Hey, let's record this song,” but he doesn't like it, then he won’t do it. But he's wanting to try just about anything, and so it's inspirational, and it's funny, and it's heartwarming and heartbreaking. He can sing a lyric in a way that just warms your heart; he can capture bittersweet, and he can capture a lot of emotional levels in one syllable. He’s just got that kind of voice.
The other fun thing is, he's been playing music for a long time most of his life and he's never really been in a rock and roll band. He’s been in folk combinations and country-rock bands, that kind of thing. But he’s never been in a real rock and roll band. And so it's fun to get up there and play some raunchy rhythm and blues with us, because we see how excited he is. Besides folk and country, he grew up listening to blues and R&B. So when you do an R&B or blues song with him, he gets very excited. And that makes me happy. And then everyone in the band gets happy and everybody's happy.
Q: I remember when you first announced this partnership, and I thought, “Wait, that’s not the Flatlanders guy I expected to join with Dave because Joe Ely is the rock ‘n’ roll guy in that band.” But you must be that it's worked out so well and that you're keeping on with it.
DA: Yeah, I always thought of Jimmie as a great blues singer. And he is, and that's why on the first album we did there I was kind of pushing him. Actually, I didn't have to push him, I just was advising him saying “Let’s do more bluesy stuff”. And we did a nice balance between the folkier approach and a bluesy approach. And that's kind of what the live shows are like with us.
Q: Let’s skip to something completely different: The Third Mind. That project wasn’t something I expected from you, but it must have been fun to be part of a more freeform thing.
DA: Yeah, it was. I always record live, and II like to have all the musicians in the room at one time to make the noise. The Third Mind is different in that there is absolutely no rehearsal, and it's really just flying by the seat of your pants. And it's something I've always wanted to do.
I've read a book by an author named John Szwed about Miles Davis. And he went into great detail about how Miles made certain albums, like “Bitches Brew,” "Jack Johnson,” and the records like that in the electric era. And it just sounded so great, because what he could do is go into the studio for a week with Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin, and they would just turn on the tapes and Miles would give them some instruction, like, slow, fast, or medium, and then they just record everything for a week. And then Miles and his producer Teo Macero would then go in and cut the tape and create compositions out of that
So that was the idea that I kind of knocked it around with the bass player, Victor Krummenacher, for a long time whenever we'd run into each other, and then when there was enough money to give it a shot on a low-budget version of that. And yeah, it's different, just because there's no kind of expectations. Like, let's say I go into the studio with a song or two, I'm leaving there for sure with a song or two. But with The Third Mind, it's like, “Well, we'll see what happens.” And fortunately, because the musicians are also good, we're able to leave there with something.
The new album is a little, slightly, slightly, ever so slightly more arranged than the first album. And it's a little more of a band record in that we have this great singer named Jesse Sykes. On the first album, she sang a version of Fred Neil's “The Dolphins” with me, and then she did a version of “Morning Dew.”
But on this album, I wanted her to sing every song -- I kind of figured my voice is for Dave Alvin records – because of her voice and her attitude, since Jessie's kind of an open-minded psychedelic person. And she can play acoustic guitar right along for 10 minutes while we're going freeform, and she doesn't mind. A lot of singers would get bored, and she's not. She's right there. She'll tell you if you've played something she likes, she'll tell you if you didn't play something she likes. So for the new album, Jesse’s the voice of the band. It’s also a little more structured – she divides her time between Seattle and Iowa, so we spent a lot of time on the phone just going over the songs. And she and I did a little more brain work on some songs before we got to the studio so that when we got there, I could say “Okay, it's in the key of A and solos will be here and maybe here and maybe here and then we'll see.”
I'm really proud of the new Third Mind record. It really showcases not only Jesse but also the other guitar player, David Immergluck. He's fearless in all the good ways that a guitar player should be fearless. Yeah. And then Michael Jerome, the drummer, is one of the most intuitive drummers I've ever worked with. Some drummers will say, “Okay, this is the song and it goes like this.” Michael is more like, “Okay, how is Jesse playing this song? And what will I do around it while she's singing?” I think he's always been like that. I think working for 20 years of Richard Thompson has probably made him even more sensitive to the singer and what the singer was playing on guitar.
Q: Are you going to be able to finally take the Third Mind on the road?
DA: We've never played a live show outside of what we recorded in the studio. But we do have a gig booked at a festival of all places this fall. I can't say anything because it's not announced yet. And I'll be honest, I'm a little nervous. Because it's not like in my band -- whether it's me solo or me and Jimmie Dale, there are places in the show that are specifically left open-ended, meaning we don't know what's going to happen there. And you can ask my band, I don't intentionally mean to curveball them, but sometimes I get swept up in the passion of the moment, and we'll go someplace that wasn't intended to go to. But those are just sections of my show.
But with the Third Mind, that's the whole thing, so it'll be interesting. Hopefully, we’ll tour. Everybody's into doing it, but everybody does other things. Right now, we have two blocks of time, set aside to do stuff. But David Immergluck tours with the Counting Crows, Michael plays with Richard Thompson, Victor plays with the Eyelids and Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, and Jesse has her own album coming up soon, with her band. So we'll see. I think we will – I don't know how much but I think we definitely will.
Q: It seems like it would be a lot of fun.
DA: Playing with this band is liberating, and it makes you feel like a kid again, so all the sort of headaches and traumas of the music business kind of float away when I'm doing this. I mean, it floats away when I'm doing my own stuff on stage and all that, but this is just different. Like, if every song is 15 minutes long, hey, that's the way it was meant to be. Just roll the dice and you see what happens. It's very different from, say, the Blasters. But on the other hand, when I'm when whether I’m doing the Third Mind, or playing with Jimmie Dale, I'm still that same guy that was in the Blasters 40 years ago.
Q: “Eleven Eleven,” your last studio album, came out in 2011. Do you have plans to make another one soon?
DA: I was in the hospital a lot. And so you lay there in the hospital bed, and you make little plans, right? And once it became obvious that The Third Mind touring wasn't going to happen, because of the pandemic, you can make a case that that was a good thing, because it gave people a chance to kind of warm up to the first album and get used to that kind of approach.
So I would lay in bed in the hospital. And it was just like, “Okay, here's what I want to do: Make another Third Mind album, do another one with Jimmie Dale because those are fun, and then make a Dave Alvin record even though they’re not as fun. I mean, they are, but they're not. After I left The Blasters and went solo, one of the harsh realities for me was how much pressure there is. When I was in a band, the band kind of was like a sponge, soaking up a lot of the pressure and absorbing a lot of the ups and downs. But when you're a solo act, you're it. You pay all the bills, you have to do this, you have to do that. You can't blame it on the drummer. You can't blame it on your brother. You can only blame yourself. And so, yeah, solo albums to me aren’t always fun.
With the album that we're currently making with Jimmie Dale, one of the differences is, on the last record, I think there were only two originals, really. There was ”Downey to Lubbock” that Jimmie Dale and I wrote together and then there was a song called “Billy the Kid and Geronimo” that I wrote. This new album’s got much more originals, so it sounds more like a Dave album. After that, then yeah, I'll go make my next record.
Q: I have your paperback poetry book “Any Rough Times Are Now Behind You” and it’s one of my most- prized possessions and molds. But it was cool that you put out another book, “New Highway,” last year, and it’s in hardcover.
DA: They came to me during the pandemic, and during the cancer treatment, and they dropped the word “memoir.” I recoiled against that, but what I said was, “How about this: all the music writing, the lyrics, and the music, things I've written about music and musicians, or people around the music industry.? And they were like, “Fine. And then a memoir?” And I was like, okay. So, yeah, it's nice being in hardback. I feel legitimate.
Q: I just looked at my signed copy of the poetry book, and saw that you inscribed it “Of course, none of this is true!”
DA: (Big laugh)
Q: Some of those pieces were obviously autobiographical but then you take liberties with some of the other stories…
DA: I was taught to write that way, by the teachers that taught me how to write, but as I've gotten older, some of the stuff that was in that book, I wouldn't put that out now. If that makes any sense. I think I am, at least, a little more sensitive to the – what's the word I want? – feelings of others.
So I am working on a memoir. But it'll mainly be stories about dealing with record labels, stories about writing songs, stories about seeing Lightnin’ Hopkins when I was 14. That kind of stuff, as opposed to who I dated – I'm not really interested in that kind of stuff.
DA: Yeah, they will be more like that, because I got some great stories. Some people I know have written memoirs that are a little more tell-all and that's kind of where my poetry maybe would have been 30 years ago -- more tell-all. Now it's like, you don't need to know a lot anymore.
Q: How’s your brother Phil doing these days?
DA: He's hanging in there. It’ll be a long time before he's touring again, and a little while longer before he could actually do shows, even local shows. He was in the hospital for months, and he's now home finally.
I had, three different types of cancer, but it was cancer. But with Phil, there are so many little things that are wrong that it's hard to explain. But he doing okay, actually. I can get him to laugh and at least smile. And he corrects me, of course, so nothing's changed – if I say something that he doesn't agree with, he lets me know right away. That's a good sign.
Q: On a personal note, my dad recently passed away from Parkinson’s like your dad did. When he first got diagnosed a decade ago, the first thing that popped into my mind was your “Man in the Bed” song. It was almost too close to home, but it summarized what I thought my dad might be feeling – he was really active and athletic but it was slowly going away.
DA: Yeah, there were times in the past three years when I've been in the hospital where that song was going through my mind and it wasn't about my own man anymore, it was about me.
I don't really have a favorite song, and I don't really have a song that I call the best song I ever wrote. But that might be the best song I ever wrote. I never do it live. When the album first came out, I was doing it live and my late friend, Chris Gaffney, who was in the band at that time would just come over and give me hell for making him cry. And then I realized that it's a song that it hits people a certain way and not always in a bad way, but it just hits them. And yeah, that's probably the best song I ever wrote.
Q: Hopefully, you won't write have to write any more songs like that.
DA: You write one of them, you've kind of written it. I did a couple of things where I and a friend of mine went to a couple of nursing care facilities and did the song for the patients there. And yeah, and, some people do play it for their parents, or for their loved ones, who are going through that. And that song has been played at a lot of memorials. I get a lot of messages from people, even some people that don't even really like what I do, who say that song touches them.
Q: Well, we started this talk with cancer, and we're ending with Parkinson's. So let me ask you something a bit lighter. What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies or things that people might not know about you?
DA: Oh, well, lately, not much. I used to love to hike – that's where I could go and clear my head and all that from the music business. I live in the hills so I tend to walk there as opposed to going out into open spaces. I can't do that now, which is a drag. But I can do it in the hills around my house, so it's one of the ways I keep myself in shape.
That and I have a hillside that's mine where I garden and I grow cactus. I have gigantic 20 to 25-foot cactuses. That’s really what I'm capable of doing now – my days of horseback riding and all that kind of stuff are in the past now. I can't really do skin diving, which I never did, but it's not something I can do now. Maybe if they told me that I've got a year to live, I’d say, “Okay, let's do let's do some insane thing.”
I had a drummer for years, a guy I loved named Bobby Lloyd Hicks Bobby had a drinking problem, but when he got sober, his life changed 100% and he started skydiving! It was like, “I can't believe… what?... who?”
So, I'm limited in what I can do and where I can do it. With all the surgeries and this, that, and the other, I lost about 15-20 pounds. I'm physically capable of doing the shows and all that, but I kind of weigh what I weighed in high school, roughly. And while that might sound attractive to some people, it's not attractive to me. So I'm limited in what I can do physically, which is bash on the guitar and make it from one town to the next. So that's pretty good.
Q: Yeah, that's the most important thing. It’s like I say, whenever anybody ever wishes me happy birthday, especially when I hit a milestone or whatever, I always say that it's better than the alternative.
DA: Oh, hell yes! As I said, my ex-manager just passed away exactly from what I had. So that was again, a reminder that we've only got so much time and I still got a lot of stuff that I need to do. The cancer treatments set me back musically, because of the neuropathy, and the hands and all that. But, I'm about back to 90 to 95% as a guitar player to where I was before cancer, and before the treatments, and I want to get back up to 100% before I have to deal with anything else again.
If You Go
Who: Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore with The Guilty Ones, with Dead Rock West opening
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Center for the Arts of Homer
Cost: $35-$40, available online here