The Blasters haven't forgotten their roots

DOWNEY - When Phil Alvin takes the stage Saturday at the Epic Lounge, it won't be a homecoming for a simple reason: the Blasters frontman still makes his home in Downey. "But it's always nice to play in your hometown," Alvin conceded. "In my teens I played here all the time in the Ric-Rac Room before it was the Anarchy Library."

Alvin, 60, sat down with this newspaper last week for an interview ahead of this Saturday's concert.

"To be honest, I'm doing this show as a favor for Don," Alvin laughed, referring to Don Lamkin, a retired Santa Fe Springs firefighter and founding member of the Downey Arts Coalition who recently launched Catch 22 Productions. "I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for Don."

The Blasters have a committed fan base throughout the United States and Europe, and they're renowned in Southern California for their unique rock sound unlike anything heard on the radio today. In other words, they could have easily sold out the much larger Downey Theatre.

But the Blasters are playing the Epic Lounge, an intimate venue at 8239 2nd St., to help Lamkin's efforts to bring quality, non-mainstream music to Downey.

After the show was announced on Facebook, tickets sold out within days, no doubt spurred by the prospect of watching the Blasters perform up-close. Opening the show is an eclectic jazz group called the California Feetwarmers.

As we sat in Lamkin's backyard patio, I asked Alvin what kept him in conservative Downey after all these years. Downey produced the Carpenters, and even James Hetfield of Metallica, but still is not exactly synonymous with rock and roll.

Pardon the stereotype, but West L.A. would seem a more appropriate place for someone in entertainment.

"I never wanted to live in the Westside," Alvin says, sipping coffee and dragging on a Kool cigarette. "I've spent enough time in Hollywood, seeing drunk people at 3 in the morning.

"I've been all around the world while living in Downey. I didn't see why I had to leave."

Alvin has been in Downey nearly his entire life. He and his sister attended OLPH School, two grades apart. It was in the first grade that Alvin was "discovered," by a nun no less.

"I was singing in a choir when Sister [Mary] Antonita grabbed me by my wrist and took me out of the classroom," Alvin remembers with a smile. "She dragged me across the street and knocked on a door. Inside there was a woman on a piano and they had me singing 'bim, bo, za...bim, bo, za.'"

That was the first time people really took notice of Alvin's raspy baritone voice. Alvin, in turn, relished music and learned to play any instrument he could get his hands on, from the piano and harmonica to the violin.

He began taking music lessons at a small shop on Woodruff Avenue. The store owner said Alvin's hands were too small for the guitar and talked his dad into investing in an accordion.

Alvin still has that accordion, not that it got much use.

He tagged along with his cousins in their '53 Chevy to Harvey's Broiler to watch the local bands perform. When Alvin's parents left him with a babysitter, she would throw "hard rock parties" where Alvin learned to shimmy his hips like Elvis Presley.

Soon Alvin was good enough to begin playing his own gigs in Pico Rivera, Bell Gardens and Compton. Gritty locations, yes, but Alvin loved the passion in his audiences.

"Mexicans love their music, it's in their culture," Alvin says. "I also played with the local car clubs in Southern California. That was the culture I grew up in."

Alvin and his neighborhood friends formed the Blasters in 1967. They didn't enjoy major success until the punk band X put pressure on its record label to sign the Blasters.

Alvin was in the small city of Terra Haute, Ind., when he first heard a Blasters song play on the radio.

"It was really strange," he laughs.

The Blasters performed three times on "American Bandstand" and would go on to release several records. Their most recent, "Fun on Saturday Night," came out last year and is available on Amazon.

One of Alvin's biggest thrills, he says, was performing live in front of legendary blues musician Joe Turner, while Turner was in the audience. Alvin did his best to emulate Turner's sumptuous vocals.

Turner was not impressed.

"He told me, 'Stop embarrassing me and yourself. Just sing like you,'" Alvin remembered. "It was the best advice I ever received. There is a thin line between emulating someone and being yourself."

The band did form their own musical sound that has been described as country, Americana and hillbilly, but neither description is entirely accurate.

"Jazz, blues, country...It can't fit into one contemporary genre," Alvin says. "Our music is much too specific to identify with anything. I mean, country music? What is country? Who's country?"

Still, he says, "I never thought I would become a musician."

At one point, Alvin indeed gave up music after earning his bachelor's degree and taking a teaching job at Cal State Long Beach. He also continued his graduate studies. A mathematics fanatic, he wrote a master's thesis on anti-foundational set theory, a complex subject we won't pretend to understand or explain.

Music, however, always beckoned and the Blasters were performing tours around the world.

Today, Alvin continues to perform "a few times a month." The Blasters gear their concerts toward their fans and at Saturday's show Alvin promises they will play their popular hits along with unreleased tracks.

"It used to make me made when I saw bands and they didn't play what I wanted to hear," Alvin says. Saturday's show may be sold out but fans of the local music scene are encouraged to follow Catch 22 Productions on Facebook for details on other upcoming shows in Downey.

Alvin maintains a low profile in Downey but he likes what he sees with the recent arts resurgence here.

"I remember trying to get gigs in Hollywood and they'd ask where we were from. They'd say Downey? Get the [expletive] out of here," Alvin laughs. "I'm in favor of getting the scene going here again. Music is still good at its grassroots levels."

********** Published: April 11, 2013 - Volume 11 - Issue 52