Friday, December 08, 2006

Best Concert I Ever Attended - The Blasters By: Terry Lowe

I retired my blue suede shoes (with honours) after I saw Chuck Berry play, for free, in a suburban car dealership parking lot. It was a promotional gig: the guy who owned the car dealership wanted some attention, so he hired Chuck to play. Chuck'll go anywhere; just give him his fee ($60,000), and he'll grab his guitar and get on a plane. He hires local sidemen, figuring anyone who can play rock'n'roll already knows his stuff, and thus gets to keep most of that fee for himself.

So there he was: Chuck Berry with brilliantined pompadour, two-toned shoes and a paisley jacket, duck-walking across the stage in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. He was professional, delivered the goods, but he looked like he was glad the airport was nearby. He kept glaring at the bass player for missing cues, and the poor bass man (a kid really) could only shrug and keep trying. What the hell, you only get to play with a legend once, may as well make the best of it.

My blue suede shoes were falling apart at the seams anyway. There was a revolution in popular music just around the corner (well, in England really), and it didn't take long for Vancouver to become a hotbed of new wave /punk with all its furious energy. Now, that was fun: rebellious, chaotic, noisy, creative, drunk, and wildly divergent. As a friend once remarked of the Sex Pistols (who actually sucked as a band), "They opened a lot of doors."

And thus we got to see a lot of great stuff unfold here in the late 70s and early 80s, especially once the Commodore Ballroom realized that these bands could bring in large crowds. I saw a lot of great shows there, and even remember a few of them. The one that stands out the most was The Blasters, circa 1982.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

The Blasters were two brothers - Phil and Dave Alvin - from Downey, California, along with some masterful sidemen (including piano and sax). Their roots ran deep into every vein of American music. Trying to describe them is like trying to describe the early Elvis - there was really nothing quite like them, before or since. Nominally, they were a rockabilly band, but they also had influences in the blues, country and western, Chicano R & B (like their friends Los Lobos), and plain old rock and roll.

And could they rock! They blew the roof off that place, and the audience kept wailing for more. And the thing I noticed most was the diversity of the crowd: leftover hippies, punkers, preppy college kids, even a table or two of greying Hells Angels, and ALL were thoroughly enjoying themselves.

This was because they had truly great songs, and were truly great musicians. The Blasters had a rule for admission in their band: everyone had to be able to play everyone else's instruments. This was so they understood how those other instruments worked alongside their own, and it showed. I've never seen a band play better live.

They were also dedicated to keeping it real: no computers, synthesizers, or any other such digital tricks allowed. Phil Alvin, lead singer and rhythm guitarist is also a student of advanced mathematics, and he has a lot of theories(which he hopes to turn into proven formulas) about what the structure of music is, what it represents, and how it gets that way. He told an interviewer, "Give me a rock, man. I'll sit over here and bang with the rock and sing - and you play synthesizer - and I betcha I can get a bigger crowd." He concluded that conversation by saying, "Rock jazz fusion funk punk country swing blues - the names are in. Now it's technique. Now you concatenate."

It's almost a truism that a band that good can't last. Chief songwriter Dave Alvin left in 1985 or 86, and they never really recovered. But while they were active, they were untouchable. They usually ended their shows with the crowd-pleasing 'Marie Marie' - once described as the best Chuck Berry song that Chuck Berry didn't write - and just before the house lights went up, Phil would yell at the crowd, "We're the Blasters, tell yer friends..."

Yes, indeed; people still talk about that show.

No comments: