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Watching California Burn

"Excuse me," says Dave Alvin as he struggles to contain a sudden coughing fit. "We all have this stuff in our lungs now from the fires."

By, "we," of course, Alvin means people in Los Angeles, where he came up out of the primal ooze of roots-rock, punk and folk that made the scene there famous through the '80s, and still lives today. Having covered all of the aforementioned genres as a member of the Blasters, X and the Knitters, he's more recently made his reputation as a solo artist by writing songs that live and breathe California.

These days, the breathing isn't easy. But the fact that Alvin, who returns to Santa Cruz with two shows at the Kuumbwa Friday, knows so many people who've been affected by the recent fires hints at how truly connected he is to the landscape he's written about so eloquently in songs like "California Snow" and "King of California."

"The weird thing about this is that just about everybody I know has been affected, or knows somebody who's been affected," he says. "That's how huge it is."

For starters, Alvin's bass player Gregory Boaz was forced to evacuate his home near Big Bear, and his guitarist Rick Shea saw his childhood home in San Bernadino burn to the ground.

Even though things have mostly been contained down there at this point, you can bet Santa Cruz never looked so good.

Especially since Alvin's currently psyching himself up to go into the studio again in December, and he's giving his best new material a workout on the road, seeing how audiences respond.

"Some of the songs I already know are OK, they're pretty good," he says. "There are a couple that I think are as good as anything I've ever written."

"They're pretty good" is about the most egotistical thing you'll hear from Alvin, whose modesty about his solo work doesn't seem to have been dampened one iota by the Grammy he just won a couple of years ago for his album Public Domain. Nor has it accelerated the Speed of Dave--the new record will be his first album of original material in five years. For fans, that seems rather on the pokey side. The leader of the Guilty Men pleads ... guilty.

"I never wanted to be Elton John," Alvin says. "Remember there was that period in the '70s when he was putting out a record a week? There's a lot of artists like that, and I'm sure when they look back on their career, when it's all wound up, they're going to wince. And I never wanted to be a wincing kind of guy. There are things I wince about, but I was sincere when I made it."

Nor does the fact that other singer/songwriters clamor after his material (most recently, James McMurtry covered "Dry River" on his last album) seem to have much affect on Alvin's view of his own work, other than to make him feel extremely flattered.

"I didn't grow up thinking, 'I'm going to go be a singer/songwriter,'" he says. "And I know people who did grow up thinking that. I really fell into it by default, because for the Blasters to get a record deal, we were told we needed original material, and I was the only guy who showed up at rehearsal. I'm not kidding, that's how I became a songwriter. Some singer/songwriters think they're on a mission from the cosmos to deliver the Word, or to let you know how miserable they are. And I'm like, 'God, does it rhyme? That's pretty cool, it rhymes!'"

In other words, enjoy this latest round of new Dave Alvin songs, because it may have to last you.

"It just takes me a long time," he says. "I mean, I could write you a song in 20 minutes. But I can't guarantee you it'd be any good."

Tickets for Alvin's 7pm and 9pm shows at the Kuumbwa on Friday, Nov. 7, are $21; call 831.479.9241.

Steve Palopoli

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From the November 5-12, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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