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Seven's Heaven: Shucks, guess playing with an all-woman band ain't that bad.

Ladies' Man

Dave Alvin lets girls kick his ass. See how they do it this Thursday at the Rio.

By Steve Palopoli

WOULD YOU trust your music career to the man who wrote the lines "She was a winner/That became a doggie's dinner?" Dave Alvin does.

It may not be easy to imagine Alvin, perhaps the most quintessentially Californian songwriter of the last three decades, buddying up to Nick Lowe, the droll British tunesmith best known for "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding," who wrote the puppy chow lyrics for his "tribute" song to loopy silent-film star Marie Prevost. But ever since Alvin's former band the Blasters toured with him in Europe back in the early '80s, Lowe's sort of been his songwriting swami.

"I've known Nick a long time," says Alvin. "We don't go camping or anything. But I actually owe him my solo career. I'd been writing all these songs for my brother Phil to sing, and he told me, 'You should sing your own songs, mate.' I told him, 'I can't sing.' He said, ' I can't either, and it's never stopped me.'"

Flash-forward to last summer, at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Alvin had played Hardly Strictly before, but this time when the organizers called, he was dealing with the death of his best friend and longtime fixture in his backing band the Guilty Men, Chris Gaffney. He wanted something to shake things up. They asked him what he wanted to do, and he said, "All women band." He immediately assembled an all-star ensemble featuring his fellow roots vets Amy Farris, Laurie Lewis, Nina Gerber, Cindy Cashdollar, Sarah Brown, Christy McWilson and Lisa Pankrantz. Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women was born.

That first gig at Hardly Strictly in October, they happened to be on the same stage as Lowe, who caught their set. Afterward he told Alvin, "You know what, mate? It could have been a gimmick, but it wasn't." This time, Alvin didn't need convincing. He took the whole group into the studio to record the newly released Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, and booked a cross-country tour that comes to the Rio on Thursday. Seat-of-the-pants has been the MO, and so far it's working. "It all fell into place quickly," he says. "We were playing onstage with literally no rehearsal." And sometimes, that's the best way to go, as he discovered when they recorded the Tim Hardin song "Don't Make Promises."

"About two-thirds of the song is this spontaneous jam that just happened. Nobody saw that coming. And if we'd rehearsed, it never would have happened. So there are pluses and minuses to no rehearsal," he says.

Alvin had played previously with all of his new band mates, but never all together. In picking the band, he went for a mix of different backgrounds--Lewis is best known for bluegrass, Cashdollar for Western swing, Gerber for folk and Brown for blues. But he admits he doesn't know why exactly it's been working so well.

"If I think too much about it, it won't be there. I just trust that it's there," he says. "I knew what everybody was capable of. I knew that no matter how much I screwed it up, it would still sound great."

And what is it like to have that traditional American band ratio of one girl to several guys suddenly flipped.

""When you're in the studio, there's really no difference. That's nonsexual. There's no testosterone, no estrogen," he says. "And onstage, I tend not to notice. Although, at the risk of sounding New Age, there's kind of a female energy. Surrounded by that, as a guy, maybe you're in more loving arms."

After a few months on tour, though, all bets are off. "We'll see. They may get sick of my jazz pretty quick."

And he's got his limits, too.

"I'm getting tired of getting my ass whupped," he admits. "I've been playing acoustic on this tour, but I'm switching over to electric so I can get some licks in. I've got to wail a little bit, because these women are kicking my ass."

On this tour, Alvin is also promoting another record that's close to his heart--the Gaffney tribute Man of Somebody's Dreams. Alvin brought together artists like Joe Ely, Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo and Calexico to record songs written by Gaffney, who died in 2008 of liver cancer.

"Aside from being my best friend, he was a really talented guy who never got a break," Alvin says. "He's going to get his goddamned break, if it's the last thing I do. In 10 years, I want people to say to me, 'You knew Chris Gaffney?'"

Nor has the passing of time made Gaffney's death any easier to deal with. Alvin is just doing the best he can.

"You don't get over that," he says. "You put together an all-woman band and you go with it."

DAVE ALVIN AND THE GUILTY WOMEN play Thursday, June 18, at 7:30pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $22 advance/$26 door; or 831.479.9421.

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