Dave and Phil Alvin get back to their roots

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Dave and Phil Alvin at a recent performance.

Dave and Phil Alvin, performing at the Grammy museum in Los Angeles. (Rebecca Sapp, WireImage / April 23, 2014)

For a very long time, the Alvin brothers, Phil and Dave, were another in the long line of rock siblings who were musically simpatico but just couldn't stand to be in a band together.

Seeing them as equal, often exuberant partners fronting a sold-out City Winery show Thursday, it was very difficult to remember that.

For two hours of roots rock, hard folk and old-time blues made modern, the duo and its band, the Guilty Ones, celebrated a shared love of American music and, it isn't going overboard to say, of each other.

It's not his normal expression, but Dave beamed from under his hat as his older brother belted out "Marie Marie," one of the timeless tunes Dave wrote for The Blasters, when the two were in that California power combo back in the early 1980s.

Phil was always the singer; he has a great, bright trumpet of a voice (shown most powerfully Thursday on a version of James Brown's "Please, Please, Please"). But he happily sang backup on "Fourth of July," the troubled-relationship classic Dave wrote for X, one of his stops after he left The Blasters out of some combination of acrimony and ambition.

It's not fair to call their current tour unprecedented. Especially since Phil nearly died in a Spanish hospital in 2012, the two have shared stages many times, including as recently as April at FItzGerald's (along with John Doe, the X frontman).

But this tour is their first, full-fledged outing as co-headliners, embarked on in support of the first record they made together in 30 years. It's been a roaring success, sold out nearly every night, buoyed by high media interest in their story of filial reconciliation.

Released in June, that record, "Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy," brings to mind the other, unavoidable presence at City Winery Thursday.

Broonzy, who lived most of his adult years in Chicago, is not as well known as some of his fellow blues pioneers, probably because he died in 1958, ahead of the big revival wave.

But his songwriting, singing and guitar playing, and his willingness to stretch the genre boudaries, have been celebrated among musicians and aficionados. The latter group includes the Alvins, fans since since an adolescent Phil brought home a Broonzy record, as Dave told the story.

"It's a little nerve-wracking to be in Big Bill's town playing Big Bill's songs," Dave, who did almost all of the talking, said from the stage.

But the band, led by Dave Alvin and Chris Miller sharing lead guitar duties, played like that was not at all the case. "Stuff They Call Money," a lament of the cash-poor, sounded contemporary as the husband-and-wife rhythm section of Brad Fordham (bass) and Lisa Pankratz (drums) joined in on the harmonies.

One of Broonzy's best known tunes, "Key to the Highway," featured Phil on harmonica, another potent voice in his repertoire thanks to lesson, his brother said, from Sonny Terry.

The songs from the Broonzy tribute LP were about half the show and they sounded entirely at home amid Blasters material ("Border Radio") and Dave Alvin's solo songs, which lean toward sad stories of gold-rush dreamers ("King of California") and the thwarted promise of California ("Dry River").

The centerpiece of the show, though, was "What's Up with Your Brother?" a tune Dave wrote for the brothers to sing together on his last solo LP.

It's a playful look at how fans, and life, will yoke you to a man you thought you had moved beyond. Trading its verses on stage Thursday, the Alvin brothers looked entirely happy to have the answer to the song's question standing right next to them.

Opener Jay Souza, from the Los Angeles band Patrolled by Radar, impressed with an old-time, Leon Redbone warble and lyrics that found humor in misery.


Twitter: @StevenKJohnson

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