The Blasters

The Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto ON, September 6

The BlastersThe Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto ON, September 6
Photo: Shane Parent
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Their contributions are now rather under-appreciated, but the Blasters were one of the most important American rock 'n roll bands of the early '80s. Spawned by the L.A. punk scene, their adrenalized sound drew on rockabilly, blues, country and punk, a hybrid they simply termed "American music." Fittingly, after main man Phil Alvin's introductory declaration of "Let's see what we can do," they launched their Horseshoe set with a virile version of their anthem, "American Music."

It turns out they can do plenty. The band's career momentum may have stalled somewhat after the departure of guitarist/chief songwriter Dave Alvin back in 1986, but they can still deliver on their stylistic mandate. The brothers Alvin have occasionally worked together of late, but the Blasters' lineup for this gig featured singer/guitarist Phil, the original rhythm section of John Bazz (bass) and Bill Bateman (drums) and lead guitarist Keith Wyatt.

The "new guy" in the band, Wyatt has actually been with them nearly two decades, and his versatile and fluent playing earned him lots of audience love. He adopted plenty of standard guitar hero poses, dishing out licks while bending down or holding the axe aloft, but never in an overbearing manner. The unobtrusive rhythm section was tighter than a Republican's wallet, while Phil Alvin's vocals sounded as robust as ever.

The Blasters were equally convincing on blues, rockabilly and country covers and band originals. Versions of tunes by Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Johnny Paycheck and Little Willie John ("I'm Shakin," a long-time favourite) fit neatly alongside the Dave Alvin compositions that now stack up as genuine Americana classics. "Border Radio," the moody "Dark Night" and the Hank Williams-inspired "Long White Cadillac" were set highlights, though the band version of the latter doesn't quite match the dynamic power of Dave's solo take.

Though clearly enjoying the crowd's response, Phil Alvin could have engaged them more. Given that this was reportedly the band's first Toronto gig in 30-plus years, a reference to that fact might have been nice. He also neglected to introduce the band, though he did give shout-outs to ex-Blaster Gene Taylor (at one time a Torontonian) and Lee Allen.

The tempo of the set slowed somewhat halfway through, with Alvin bringing out his harmonica for a few songs. Things then sped up with rockabilly romp "Marie Marie," a predictable choice of final song. The band returned for just one encore, a spirited cover of a Lieber and Stoller tune. At 80 minutes, the set may not have been overly generous, but the crowd left satisfied at witnessing a band that remains the real deal. Let's hope for a speedier return visit.

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