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On the Way: The Blasters and David Gray

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There is a popular narrative that says that the punk rock of the mid- to late 1970s was a rejection of the past, a form that came to lay waste to the bloated beasts that had brought orchestral pretense, arena bombast and jet-setting lifestyles to rock and roll. While that’s true (at least in part), punk wasn’t a revolution as much as it was a corrective. The punks didn’t want to eradicate history. They just wanted to turn back the clocks, and only by a few years.

In London, the Sex Pistols were covering songs by 1950s rocker Eddie Cochran. In New York, the Ramones were channeling 1960s girl groups like the Crystals and the Ronettes. And in Los Angeles, the band X was repurposing hyperkinetic Chuck Berry riffs into the signature sound of West Coast punk.

So it shouldn’t seem as surprising as it does that rhythm and blues revivalists The Blasters came of age in the same southern California clubs as X back in the waning days of the Carter administration. They were all just searching for a truer sound.

The Blasters formed in the late 1970s in Downey, California, composed initially of brothers Phil (vocals, guitar) and Dave (guitar) Alvin, drummer Bill Bateman and bassist John Bazz. Ardent blues and R&B fans from a precociously early age, the teenaged Alvin brothers hung out at the right southern California record stores and blues clubs, and nudged their way into a universe populated by the stars of an earlier era. They met and played with the likes of Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker.

They internalized the music, and when they formed their band, it poured out of them with an intensity and authenticity that knocked audiences on their heels. And not only did they play covers (their version of “I’m Shakin’,” first made famous by Little Willie John in 1960, kicks like 100-proof gin), Dave Alvin wrote a string of songs that bridged the gap of the intervening years as if no time had passed. His tunes from that period — “Marie, Marie,” “American Music,” “Border Radio” — are stone-cold rockabilly classics.

This original incarnation of The Blasters lasted only a few years. After failing to reach the audience they deserved — and with growing rancor between the Alvin brothers — the band split in 1986, and Dave Alvin embarked on a solo career that continues to this day (he also served a brief stint as X’s guitarist). Phil Alvin put [most of] the band back together soon thereafter, and has led various lineups of The Blasters on and off ever since. The current (and, by now, long-running) lineup consists of Phil Alvin, Bateman, Bazz and ace guitarist Keith Wyatt.

This version of The Blasters, which visits Kansas City on Saturday, May 13 for a show at Knuckleheads, has released a pair of albums that sprinkle a few Phil Alvin originals in with covers of classic blues and R&B songs. But their reputation rests largely on crisscrossing the United States, setting up in any juke joint or roadhouse with a dance floor and cold beer, and pinning patrons to the wall with their fevered take on the most elemental American music.

Three nights later, David Gray rolls into a town for a show at the Uptown Theater.  The English singer-songwriter toiled in obscurity for years until his fourth album, “White Ladder,” was re-released in 1999. It made him a superstar, selling a million copies in the United States and earning 10-times platinum status in the United Kingdom. All Gray needed was to be heard, and as the first release on Dave Matthews’ ATO Records, “White Ladder” received the backing that his independent releases had not. Gray combined melodic sophistication with keen songwriting chops, and the result was an intoxicating mix of folk-pop songs that burrowed deep into the collective psyche. Songs like “Babylon,” “Please Forgive Me” and “Sail Away” were undeniable and unavoidable. For a while, David Gray’s songs were everywhere, and they were always pleasing to the ear.

In the years since, Gray has continued to craft albums full of insistently melodic tunes with sing-along choruses. His work is so easily accessible that it’s sometimes easy to miss how disarmingly soulful he can be. Having split his upbringing between the north of England and the south of Wales, Gray possesses an everyman kind of charm that seems devoid of any calculation or pretense. These songs are who he is.

His most recent album, 2014’s “Mutineers,” is a subtle shift from his past work. It’s quieter, but it’s lush, with layers of sound bringing noticeable warmth to his songs. And though Gray’s primary collaborator was Andy Barlow, who is best known for making electronic music with his band Lamb, the album has a decidedly natural feel, packed as it is with acoustic guitars and piano. If you’ve enjoyed Glen Hansard’s recent work, you’ll find much to like here.

Last October saw the release of “The Best of David Gray,” an 18-track compilation that neatly encapsulates Gray’s career and his easy way with a melody, his deft way with a lyric and his wholehearted way of delivering his songs. Those gifts should make for an enchanting evening.

Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which is available from Amazon. He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.


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