Chances are, you’ve heard the warm, personable rasp of English Renaissance man Michael Des Barres and didn’t know it.
One of his earliest film roles was the shades-sporting student in 1967’s “To Sir, With Love”; his TV appearances include the classic “Smelly Car” episode of “Seinfeld,” where he played a restaurateur who, like Jerry, is also visibly repulsed by his valet’s body odor. Currently, his posh voice beams out over the airwaves on Little Steven’s Underground Garage Sirius XM radio channel, where he hosts a popular daily program. When he hits The City this week, he’ll be fronting The Mistakes, his latest in a long line of backing bands dating back to the early-‘70s glam outfit Silverhead.
Des Barres, 72, started acting at age 8, and formed his first rock group in his teens. He never felt pressured to choose a single creative outlet. “I was in this to express myself, so I didn’t see any delineation between acting and singing. I’m either killing ‘em on television or in some dirty little club somewhere,” he says. The rest of his musical career was pure serendipity.
In 1976, his group Detective was recommended a new slide guitarist, Robbie Blunt, by a mutual friend of Robert Plant. Hiring him, then playing Plant’s British hometown of Birmingham, he adds, “The club had 11 people in it that night, and four of them were Led Zeppelin. And that was it. We ended up spending three days in this mad, debauched vacation with Led Zeppelin.”
Plant promptly signed Detective to his swank Swan Song imprint.
Three albums later, Des Barres had formed the New Wave supergroup Chequered Past, and — after opening for Duran Duran — he was invited to step in for vocalist Robert Palmer in the members’ spinoff combo The Power Station, just in time to play 1985’s Live Aid concert. Coincidentally, Chequered Past also toured with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, where the musicians became fast friends. “When Andrew Loog Oldham left Underground Garage, Maureen, Little Steven’s wife, whispered in his ear one night, ‘Get Michael!’ And that’s how my radio career began,” he says.
Still, it’s his early work that keeps recruiting new fans. “We actually sell more Silverhead records today than we ever did 40 years ago,” says the singer, who leans heavily on that group’s material in his current sets. “I think those two years I spent with Silverhead was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done.”
It took a minute for Atlanta-bred William DuVall, who replaced the late Layne Staley in Seattle sludgemeisters Alice in Chains in 2006, to find his voice.
Before Alice in Chains, he anchored the hardcore-punk Neon Christ, the Hendrix-inspired No Walls, the bluesy Madfly, and Comes With the Fall, the grungy band he was in when he moved to Los Angeles and met Alice axman Jerry Cantrell 20 years ago. (Cantrell was impressed when DuVall convincingly snarled Alice in Chains’ signature “Rooster” at a 2006 VH1 concert honoring Heart, at the insistence of Ann Wilson, who was scheduled to perform it; the event marked the return of AIC after Staley’s death in 2002.)
But he didn’t release his first official solo album, “One Alone,” until 2019.
“It’s just me, alone, a one-man show. It’s really interesting, and nervewracking, too,” he says, describing his current tour in which he plays an acoustic guitar.
DuVall, who traded bombast for resonance on delicate “One” ballads like “Till the Light Guides Me Home,” says, “I had such a long history prior to Alice in Chains that there are many, many other things that I have to say, musically, adding, “It really is a departure for me, and it was an emotional and psychological hurdle, just putting it out under my own name.”
The song “Light” accidentally started the process of making the recording. Relaxing in Alice down time, he tracked a bare-bones demo, strummed simply on a Gibson T-185, to help someone else.
The stress-free session sounded so crystalline, it led to more.
“I never thought this would become an album when I went in that day,” he says.
Some numbers are acoustic versions of old CWF material; to flesh out his concert he’s added “Never Fade,” an Alice song he composed with Cantrell, and a few covers, like Bowie’s “Lady Stardust” and Aerosmith’s “Seasons of Wither.”
Like Bruce Springsteen, DuVall has grown comfortable with his converse solo and band personas. “Both can coexist really wonderfully,” he says.
Embarking on Welsh recording sessions for its sophomore album “Future Dust” last year, U.K. quartet The Amazons kept one credo in mind, according to frontman Matt Thomson: “We wanted to create music that we wanted to hear. Everything in the U.K. is so left-field alternative at the moment, and we wanted to hear guitar solos, and if you have your own band, you may as well write the bloody things yourself.” The band isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. Its straightforward, power-chorded approach has caught on overseas, where its eponymous 2017 debut went Top 10. Thomson likens their sound to a hearty meal: “If I’m gonna eat, I don’t want salad. I want meat and potatoes!”
When did you become such a classic-rock fan?
When I was a young lad, at 7 or 8, I would draw on my pencil case all the bands that I was liking at the time, like Linkin Park and Nickelback. But I came from a musical household, in that my parents listened to a huge amount of music, everything from Zeppelin to Bowie and Luther Vandross.
Remember the first single you bought?
Yeah. It was “Sing” from a Scottish band called Travis. But Linkin Park was the first one I paid for myself. I don’t think my parents understood Linkin Park, but that was a fairly short-lived phase. I quickly got back into the stuff that they showed me, so I was one of the few kids who was into The Beatles and Springsteen.
You still collect vinyl, right?
Yeah. And I found a really good one for $5 in Pennsylvania, “The London Sessions” with Howling Wolf, Eric Clapton and Bill Wyman. I found the “Buckingham/Nicks” record in Joshua Tree for $14, and saw it at Amoeba a week later for $250. Especially in the States, there’s a lot more blues and older records that haven’t made their way over to the U.K; old guitars, too. We’re like kids in a candy shop in your country!
IF YOU GO
Where: Slim’s, 333 11th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Contact: (415) 255-0333, slimspresents.com