Familiar faces will hit the stage at Folk Festival

Roots music royalty Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones top the bill Saturday, May 19 at the 34th annual Claremont Folk Festival at Pomona College’s Sontag Greek Theater.

The event features an array of live music on two stages as well as art, storytelling, yoga and music workshops, food and drink, craft beer and wine, drum circles, children’s activities and more.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Mr. Alvin said of his 8 p.m. festival performance. “I grew up hanging out in places like [the Folk Music Center], so anything to keep places like it alive and thriving is really important these days. As things get stranger, these places become more and more important…they’re institutions, in the most positive sense of the word.”

Mr. Alvin, with his brother Phil Alvin, is the co-founder of the long-running roots standard bearers The Blasters, who got their start in 1978 in the Alvins’ hometown of Downey, California.

The group rose to prominence in the early 1980s before Dave left to pursue a solo career in 1986. He has since toured relentlessly and released a series of records, including the 2000’s “Public Domain—Songs From The Wild Land,” which won him a Grammy Award for best traditional folk album. The Blasters continue to tour and enjoy success in the US and abroad.

The 62-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist is clearly most at home away from home. He’s out in various configurations—solo and duo acoustic, and full band electric shows—pretty much year-round. He’s a highwayman through and through.

“My late friend Chris Gaffney had a saying: ‘Never get out of the van,’” Mr. Alvin said. “That was good advice in some ways.”

When we spoke last week, he’d uncharacteristically been off the road for about two months, the longest stretch he’s spent at his Silverlake home in some time.

“It’s a constant job,” he said of maintaining his century-old house. “And things only break when I’m at home. When I’m on the road, nothing bad happens.”

Mr. Alvin’s summer and early fall is booked with a duo tour across the US with legendary Texas singer, songwriter and actor Jimmie Dale Gilmore. The two collaborated on the new record “Downey to Lubbock,” which comes out June 1. The title name checks the hometowns of both  musicians. And while each cut their musical teeth half a continent apart in bars and roadhouses playing rock, blues, folk and country, they found many points of shared reference.

“We had a lot of the same songs in common,” Mr. Alvin said. “We just learned them from different people. He may have learned a certain song from Dave Van Ronk or Lightnin’ Hopkins, and I knew it from the Memphis Jug Band from 40 years before. But we had the same vocabulary.”

The Claremont Folk Festival is Mr. Alvin’s final Guilty Ones show before he hits the road with Mr. Gilmore. The Guilty Ones include Mr. Alvin, powerhouse Austin drummer Lisa Pankratz and her husband, bassist Brad Fordham, and guitarist Chris Miller, who hails from Portland. Harmonica player Jack Rudy will also sit in with the band at the festival.

A highlight of Mr. Alvin’s recording career came in 2014, when he and Phil released “Common Ground,” their first Alvin brothers collaborative record. They followed it up in 2015 with a second collection, “Lost Time.”

The brothers’ sometimes thorny relationship, musical and otherwise, has long fascinated fans. “What’s Up with Your Brother?” a track off Mr. Alvin’s 2011 album, “Eleven Eleven,” acknowledged the siblings’ lifelong entanglements, both musical and personal. By the song’s outro, the brothers are fighting playfully, a nod to their periodic sibling squabbling.

The brothers, with Dave’s deep baritone and Phil’s soulfully unique tenor, trade verses in the punchy, harmonica laden electric blues tune:

“I’ve been fighting this guitar over

30 long years

Until there’s blood on my hands and ringing in my ears

Sing my songs ‘round the world, one end to the other

But all anyone asks is

What’s up with your brother?


I catch rattlesnakes with my bare hands

Sang jazz with Sun Ra, played in

T-Bone Walker’s band

I’ll debate time and space and the

theory of numbers

But all anyone asks is

What’s up with your brother?”


“I wanted to do something that really represented who the Alvin brothers are,” Mr. Alvin said of the Dave and Phil albums. Another motivator was to get Phil—who has experienced serious health problems over the past decade—financially stable and set up with health insurance. The brothers toured nearly constantly for some three-and-a-half years. They’d go out for six months, and when they would get back home for a few weeks, The Blasters had gigs booked, leaving Phil exhausted.

“We got everything taken care of, and after that I just kind of felt, ‘I’m running you into the ground.’ I started not doing that because I felt like I was killing him.” Mr. Alvin added that he didn’t think Phil would be joining him at the May 19 festival, “But you never know, he may show up. I don’t know.”

Folk Music Center general manager  Ellen Harper, who’s new record, “Light has a Life of its Own,” will be out in June, spearheaded the event. She and her granddaughter Harris Harper will also play a set on the Studio Art Theater Stage. Harris will appear at 11:30 a.m., with Ellen taking the stage at 12:30 p.m.

The festival has long attracted outsized talent to its modest stage. The reason, both Mr. Alvin and Ms. Harper agreed, is because artists want to support “The Folk” and what it represents: the increasingly endangered hometown music store and the scene that orbits around it.

“We have wonderful musicians that are very supportive of folk music,” Ms. Harper said, listing Mr. Alvin, Jackson Browne, David Lindley, Taj Majal, Keith Morris and Henry Rollins, as just a few who have made the pilgrimage to perform in Claremont.

“We have fabulous local talent whose names might not be instantly recognized, but who are superlatively talented, who teach at the Folk Music Center and at the festival.”

Mr. Browne gave a Folk Music Center benefit concert last year at Bridges.

“He cares deeply about the Folk Music Center,” Ms. Harper said. “It has been so influential in his life and in innumerable peoples’ lives and careers both musical and social. It inspires people to take up music, and brings people together from many walks of life to share their love of music, a communal language. Many music stores have gone under in this Amazon age. Fortunately, there are still people who understand its importance that don’t want to see it disappear.”

More information is at folkmusiccenter.com. Tickets are $40 and are available at the Folk Music Center at 220 Yale Ave., Claremont, or online at brownpapertickets.com.

—Mick Rhodes



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