There’s nothing like a near-death experience to bring estranged family members back together, according to Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, the notoriously bickering brothers from Downey.
The siblings in the R&B-rockabilly combo The Blasters, who hadn’t recorded together since guitarist Dave stormed out in 1986, have reunited for a surprise new comeback, “Common Ground — Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy,” and are appearing in The City this week to promote it.
Cold, hard reality was the motivation for the reunion. Last year, on a Blasters tour of Spain, vocalist Phil was rushed to a hospital, post-concert, where he flatlined. Twice.
Onstage in Valencia that night, Phil didn’t know what was happening at first. The right side of his throat swelled up, which made it easier to sing.
“But when I got back to the hotel, the other side blew up, instantly like a balloon, and then I was sucking air,” he recalls. “And the last thing I remember was walking in through the doors of a clinic. I woke up two days later to the beep-beep-beep of an ICU.”
Later, the frontman learned just how close he came to meeting his maker. Due to an abscessed tooth, his throat had swollen completely shut, leading to a cardiac arrest. A young intern jolted him back to life, then rushed him into the emergency room for a tracheotomy, where his heart temporarily stopped a second time.
“I was there for two weeks, and other than screwing up a tour and having a hole in my throat, it was kind of a vacation,” he says, with gallows humor.
Meanwhile, Dave was home in America, on conference calls with a translator to the hospital, and growing increasingly frantic.
“The doctor was speaking Spanish-Spanish, my friend was speaking Mexican-Spanish, and I’m on the other end going ‘What the hell?’” he says. “I was getting conflicting messages — one message said ‘Your brother’s dead,’ another one said ‘Your brother’s brain-dead,’ another said ‘Your brother’s OK.’ It was a weird couple of days.”
The experience proved transformative for both. “To see your mortality flash in front of you? It’s made me more reflective of the past and things I’ve done poorly,” admits Phil.
Dave agrees: “The realization that we’re not immortal has definitely been sinking in. So I decided around then that we should do something together.”
Why all Broonzy covers? Composing a dozen new originals seemed too daunting, explains Dave, who is open to future Phil collaborations. “And throughout all the twists and turns of our lives, there are certain people that we just don’t argue about — Big Joe Turner, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy.”
IF YOU GO
Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, with The Guilty Ones
Where: Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Contact: (415) 885-0750, www.slimspresents.comartsCommon Ground – Dave and Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill BroonzyDave AlvinPhil AlvinPop Music & Jazz