Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Blasters: "Live 1986" (2011) CD Review

I've often said that 1986 was the year that pop music went horribly wrong. It's when it stopped being fun. Music became dull. It was the year the so-called hair bands really took over. We had to put up with Cinderella and Europe and Poison and Whitesnake and Stryper. And at the other end of the spectrum we had Whitney Houston and Billy Ocean putting out songs that were so boring you just wanted to drink some bleach or set your clothes on fire. Remember, 1986 was also the year that Aerosmith kicked drugs (except for drummer Joey Kramer, who'd hold out for another year or so), and they'd never be as good again. We also had the new, less interesting version of Van Halen, not-so-affectionately referred to as Van Hagar. Things had gone wrong.

It's no wonder that 1986 was the year that saw the return of The Monkees, The Grass Roots, The Union Gap and other 1960s bands. People turned to the old stuff, to music they could count on. Anything to escape the vast wasteland of 1986 radio. Sure, there was still some good stuff happening (like 'Til Tuesday and REM), but by and large pop music - and mainstream radio - had gone to hell. Even bands outside the mainstream were feeling the horrid effects of 1986. The Dead Kennedys broke up that year. So did Black Flag. And The Clash. And The Boomtown Rats. Hell, even the Grateful Dead were affected - Jerry Garcia escaped part of the year by going into a diabetic coma.

And 1986 was the year The Blasters played their final shows with their original lineup, before Dave Alvin left (though there would be some reunions later on). The Blasters put out pure fun rock and roll. It sounds like stuff from the 1950s and 1960s, and yet most of these tunes are originals. Written with the heart of roots rock and roll. And heart was hard to come by in 1986. Huey Lewis sang that the heart of rock and roll was still beating, but the year he sang that was 1983. By 1986 Huey was singing about going back in time.

And you could go back in time - sort of - by seeing The Blasters. Like early rock and roll 45s, these songs are pretty short. They breeze in, grab you, and end, the band moving onto the next tune. These songs were recorded at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on February 14, 1986.

"Rock And Roll Will Stand"

The album opens with "Rock And Roll Will Stand," a "Johnny B. Goode"-type tune from The Blasters' 1985 release Hard Line. It's a tune about making it in the music business, with lyrics like, "You're going to get a star on the walk of the fame/Soon you'll have the biggest record in the land/Everybody knows rock and roll will stand." It's not the clearest recording. It seems we're missing the guitars at times in the mix. But hey, things can't be too polished. This is rock and roll.

The guitars are more prominent in the mix by the second tune, "Trouble Bound," also from Hard Line. At times Phil's vocals remind me a bit of Buddy Holly on this one.

"Jubilee Train"

They introduce "Jubilee Train" by saying, "This goes out to all the homeless people." "Jubilee Train" has a great groove and great energy. This is timeless rock. The Blasters must have helped the crowd at The Coach House forget about 1986, and this CD will help you forget about 2011 (if that's your desire). This is earnest rock and roll recorded by good musicians. This is not a cheesy cover band rehashing the classics for an elderly crowd in a park. After all, this tune - one of the CD's best - is an original.

Here is a bit of the lyrics: "Billie Jean was a factory girl/Never had another job in her life/The factory closed down/She was out on the street/She heard about a jubilee train." And yeah, there is a bit of blues in there.

"Jubilee Train" was included on the band's 1983 release, Non Fiction.

"Mystery Train"

"Mystery Train" has always been a favorite of mine. It's been covered by... well, everybody. (I remember a great version by Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders on the Keystone records.)

This version by The Blasters features a steady quick driving beat like a train thundering down the track. It's what makes the song pulse and thrive, rather than the guitars which usually pull the song along. Not that there isn't some darned good stuff on guitar here - because there is, particularly toward the end. "Mystery Train" was written by Junior Parker.

"Just Another Sunday"

"Just Another Sunday" was written by Dave Alvin and John Doe. (For those who aren't familiar with John Doe, he founded the band X, which Dave Alvin joined in the 1980s). This one has a bit of an angrier edge, with its repeated "It's just another Sunday in hell." More rock, less roll on this one. I really dig Phil's vocals on this song.

"I Don't Want To"

"I Don't Want To" is a seriously fun song with a bit of a rebellious attitude, like all good rock and roll has. It starts, "They say I shouldn't waste my life anymore by running around/Well, I should find some nice white girl and settle down/They tell me that's what I should do/But I don't want to." The guitars are glorious, man. Dave Alvin wrote this, and his guitar just screams. This is one of the best tracks.

"Somebody Done Hoodooed The Hoodoo Man"

"Somebody Done Hoodooed The Hoodoo Man" is a great bluesy tune with some wonderful work on harmonica by Phil Alvin. This song features deliciously down and mean lines like, "I'm gonna fix my baby so she can't have no other man." This song is over way too soon. I wish they'd stretched out a bit more.

"I'm Shakin'" is such a cool tune, and these guys do a great job with it. Written by Rudy Toombs, "I'm Shakin'" was also covered by Little Willie John.

"Border Radio"

"Border Radio" is straight-forward, feel-good rock and roll, written by Dave Alvin and featured on the band's 1981 self-title record. Here is a taste of the lyrics: "She tries to remember the heat of his touch/While listening to the Border Radio/She calls toll-free and requests an old song/Something they used to know/She prays to herself that wherever he is/He's listening to the border radio."

"Off The Wall" is a short instrumental tune featuring Phil Alvin on harmonica. It's the album's only instrumental track.

"Long White Cadillac"

"Long White Cadillac" is a seriously fun rock tune that features a nod to "Pipeline" in its extended instrumental intro. At 5:37, this is by the far the longest track on the CD (and some of that is crowd noise after the song has ended). The band cuts loose on this one, and it's easy to picture the audience doing the same. The energy is palpable. Toward the end of the song, Phil sings, "The highway fades to black/It's my last ride/I'm never coming back/In a long white cadillac."

"Long White Cadillac" was included on Non Fiction (1983).

The album concludes with "Marie, Marie," a fast-paced fun number written by Dave Alvin. This song led off the band's 1981 release, and was also included on their 1980 release, American Music. It is also featured in the film Someone To Watch Over Me (1987).

CD Track List

  1. Rock And Roll Will Stand
  2. Trouble Bound
  3. Jubilee Train
  4. Mystery Train
  5. Just Another Sunday
  6. I Don't Want To
  7. Somebody Done Hoodooed The Hoodoo Man
  8. Help You Dream
  9. Crazy Baby
  10. I'm Shakin'
  11. Border Radio
  12. Dark Night
  13. Off The Wall
  14. Red Rose
  15. American Music
  16. Long White Cadillac
  17. Marie Marie


The Blasters are Phil Alvin on guitar, vocals and harmonica; Dave Alvin on lead guitar; John Bazz on bass; and Bill Bateman on drums.

Live 1986 was released on May 31, 2011 through Rock Beat Records.

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