Blasters’ Phil Alvin Rejects Albums, Embraces Technology

The Blasters

The Blasters (HANDOUT / November 18, 2008)

There are plenty of things Phil Alvin loves about the history of American music, but the record industry isn’t one of them.

It’s not just that the longtime Blasters front man doesn’t trust label execs, although he’s been around long enough to know why he shouldn’t.

On a more fundamental level, he rejects the idea that music should be pressed onto pieces of plastic — records, cassettes, CDs — and sold by large corporations.

“The album was an artificial imprint on music that didn’t exist before [record labels],” Alvin says from California shortly before beginning a Blasters tour that stops Saturday in New Haven.

In a sense, it’s strange to hear Alvin take such a nontraditional stance. Since he and his brother Dave formed the Blasters in 1979, the band has taken an almost scholarly approach to classic American sounds — rockabilly, most notably, but also R&B, country and blues.

Alongside California contemporaries such as X and Los Lobos, the Blasters proved that roots music could be relevant in the age of punk, a genre that, to some, was bent on destroying all that had come before.

Alvin has nothing but reverence for the great artists of the past — in a matter of minutes he can steer a conversation from Louis Armstrong to Sun Ra — but he’s also a proud member of the digital revolution.

As downloaders wrest power from record labels, he says, musicians will have the freedom to sell individual performances, rather than collections of songs put together by men in business suits.

“Maybe there are 50 good performances of ‘Marie, Marie’ out there,” he says, mentioning one of the Blasters’ best-loved tunes. “And someone might like one or might like five of them. I know that’s true of me and songs I like multiple versions of.”

Alvin’s willingness to embrace new technology may have something to do with his extra-musical activities.

He’s an unofficial anthropologist who believes music exists to preserve cultural history. The goal of the Blasters, he says, has always been to put the past in new contexts and pass along important messages from those who came before.

“Music was handed to me by great people who would say great people handed it down to them,” Alvin says.

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