While many in the crowd were talking about the return of the Fightin’ Alvins, the real on-stage fireworks this Fourth of July weekend came courtesy of the past and present of Blasters guitar players.
The Blasters were one of the featured acts this past weekend at the 30th American Music Festival at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, Illinois. The current lineup (frontman Phil Alvin, guitarist Keith Wyatt, bassist John Bazz and Bill Bateman on drums) was augmented by founding guitarist and songwriter Dave Alvin, in a rare return to the fold.
The group’s two sets (the first on July 3, with a fest-closing slot on the Fourth) were built around classic Blasters material with special emphasis placed on the two guitarists on either side of the stage. Both nights began with the current four-piece Blasters plowing through old favorites (“Long White Cadillac”) and newer tunes (“Rebound,” “Precious Memories”) to great effect. Phil Alvin’s voice stands as a monument to rock and roll, and he showed no lack of power belting out tune after tune all night.
Bateman and Bazz were, of course, the quiet stars, laying a bedrock foundation for the lead players. Watching Bateman power the car is a treat; eyes closed, pounding away, making these deceptively simple songs come to life. A role as Blasters’ drummer is an endurance test coupled with precision shooting skills. He doesn’t stop there: Bateman also adds in cool triplets and musical turnarounds and bass drum patterns on every tune, giving songs like “American Music,” “Marie Marie” and “Trouble Bound” their energy.
The main event both nights came when Dave Alvin hit the stage. Decked out in his best cowboy-hat-and-denim look, Dave played the quiet loner to brother Phil’s gregarious carnival barker. Dave was content to let his guitar do the talking — or the screaming. The volume level went up as soon as he plugged in Friday, leaving Wyatt the odd man out, at least where we were standing. Dave had a masterful presence, and slipped right back into his old role perfectly. Wyatt, while playing great, seemed to sit back a bit in deference to the Alvin boys.
Saturday night was a different story: The spotlight was on Wyatt early, especially his on a surf-and-feedback clinic on an instrumental rocker. The set seemed to showcase him a bit more, which was deserved.
A special treat for Chicagoans (and Lester Butler fans, given the connections) was a surprise appearance by harmonica ace Billy Boy Arnold. Both the Blasters and the Devils covered Billy Boy’s classic “I Wish You Would,” and now the man would get up and show how it’s done. The 74 year old was loose and having fun with a backing band more than up to the task. Bateman’s dynamic drumming powered the tune, and he used his keen ear to sense when to shift dynamics on the song, based on Arnold’s vocals.
Billy Boy also treated the crowds to his “I Ain’t Got You,” most famously covered by Jimmy Reed. Arnold had fun playing with the lyrics, Sunday night singing, “I got a stable full of hoes, but I ain’t got you.”
The weekend ended with one of those special rock and roll moments. The band came out for their second encore last into the night, and Dave Alvin introduced his classic “Fourth of July.” Known mostly as an Alvin-era X song (not to mention his own version), this was a rare chance to see The Blasters try it on. Beginning tentatively, Alvin sang for the first time that night. By the chorus, the whole bar was helping out, as FitzGerald’s staff tossed hundreds and hundreds of cocktail napkins in the air for a spontaneous bit of indoor fireworks. It was clear the band loved the act, and it was a great end to a special weekend.