Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore are both longtime mainstays in the roots-music world. Both started out in bands that, at least in certain circles, became legends (Gilmore in oddball progressive-country outfit the Flatlanders, Alvin with purveyors of high-test American music the Blasters). Both went on to forge successful solo careers, Gilmore offering a brand of country-folk marked by his high lonesome quaver, Alvin crafting an eclectic roots mix that he sometimes labels “loud folk.” At first glance, the notion of the two touring together as a duo may seem a bit surprising. But to Alvin and Gilmore, who have been friends for years, the surprise is not that they’re playing music together, but that they’ve never done it before.
“We’ve known each other for so long,” observes Alvin, speaking last week from a tour stop in Minneapolis, “but outside of sing-alongs at the end of multi-artist shows, we’ve never played music together.” They just resumed a tour that began out West earlier this year, and will make a stop at the Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley Friday.
Gilmore, in a separate phone conversation, credits Alvin as the one who raised the idea of collaborating. Alvin says that there wasn’t anything in particular that brought the idea to mind; it was just one of those thoughts that happen to come along. But he locates the source of the idea in his propensity for learning new things. “I’m always looking to figure out and learn how other people do stuff, because I’m self-taught, and the way I learn is I work with other people and just watch how they do things.”
Besides their friendship, what is facilitating the collaboration is a common musical meeting point. Alvin points out that “despite his reputation or stereotype of being a folk and country singer, in a lot of ways Jimmie is a great blues singer. So the idea seemed like, we meet at the blues.”
Gilmore echoes that assessment: “People think of me so much just as a country singer, but even though my style has always leaned that way, my taste always went to the blues and R&B.” In Alvin’s elegant formulation, “we’re speaking the same language; we just have different accents.”
When the two began tossing around ideas about what shape the tour should take and what they should play, another surprise lay in store. Recounts Gilmore, “When we actually got together and started sitting around picking songs and stuff, we discovered we had this whole history together that we had never even known.” Gilmore had spent some time in Los Angeles when he was starting his musical career, and he used to frequent the Ash Grove, the famous LA club where folk and blues titans regularly performed. “I got to be friends with Lightnin’ Hopkins and Son House and a number of other people, and I was just deeply into the really old country blues,” he says.
What he did not know until those deliberations with his counterpart was that a teenaged Dave Alvin and his brother, Phil, were habitually sneaking into the club during that same period, going to school with the likes of Joe Turner and Bill Broonzy.
That delightful bit of serendipity gave the pair a starting point for their collaboration. “We started realizing that in the period when we were learning how to play, both of us had been deeply influenced by a lot of the very same stuff,” Gilmore says. “It was just so much fun to go back to all that and do those old things, and we already had a built-in repertoire of things that were easy to do.”
It gave them more than that, suggests Alvin; because they have that shared vocabulary, it opens them up to doing other things. “We go pretty left-field, and he’ll pull out stuff that I’ve never played before and I’ll just stare at his fingers, and OK, I think he’s going to an A minor!” As a result, he says, every show they’ve done has been almost a unique entity. “He’ll do a song and I’ll do a song that we know the audience paid their money to hear. But then we’ll go off into, well, let’s see, what’s over here? And so what it leads to is it’s almost stream of consciousness in song-playing.” In fact, he says, they sometimes get carried away as little themes develop; they ended up spending two-thirds of one show doing song after song about rivers. Their penchant for opening the floor to requests adds an additional element of surprise.
Both Alvin and Gilmore think that something in the way of recording may come out of this joint endeavor. It might draw on the shared repertoire they’ve discovered, or on songs they write together, which Gilmore thinks may happen on the current tour. For his part, Alvin says that the more they’ve played, the more apparent it has become that they should try to capture it in some form.
For now, though, they’ll just continue to see what each show brings. “What we’ll be doing in Shirley, I have no idea,” Alvin concludes with a laugh. “Come on down and find out!”
Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore
At: The Bull Run Restaurant, Shirley, Nov. 3 at 8 p.m.Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.