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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Blasters @ Shank Hall

Feb. 24, 2011

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If the protesters still congregating at the state Capitol in Madison need a house band, let me be the first to suggest The Blasters. "I know a motherfucking scab when I see one," vocalist/guitarist/legend Phil Alvin said in greeting a capacity crowd at Shank Hall, "and Scott Walker is a motherfucking scab." Alvin would spend much of the night returning to the theme of the necessity of unions (when he wasn't mildly chastising audience members who confused him with his brother Dave), as he and his band mates toured through a breakneck set of material that spanned the band's exceptional career.

That didn't mean the concert was a dour affair, however. On the contrary, Alvin and company played like these songs were still fresh to them. Most impressive was the playing of Keith Wyatt, whose thick guitar sound—along with a series of mind-bending solos—breathed new life into numbers such as "It's All Your Fault," "Sugar Momma" and "Rock My Blues Away." By the time the band got to fan-favorite "Long White Cadillac" there was a throng of women dancing in front of the stage. For a reviewer used to immobile indie-rock audiences, it was nice to see a band inspire a crowd to actually move and have fun. And Alvin soaked it all in. Flashing his trademark Cheshire Cat grin, he stomped and sweated as he playfully mixed genres. There are elements of rockabilly, country and soul in the best of the band's material, and The Blasters succeed in synthesizing these sounds while not losing the joy of musical discovery.

But it was the serious "Dark Night" that proved to be the highlight of the set. From the song's first verse—"Hot air hangs like a dead man/ From a white oak tree/ People sitting on porches/ Thinking how things used to be"—the band was able to conjure a feeling of unnerving dread, setting the stage for what soon would become a racially charged murder ballad. Yet, as Alvin hit the chorus, I couldn't help but think how the anxiety The Blasters are able to create in this powerful song speaks to our current political climate. "I thought things like that," Alvin sang, "Didn't matter anymore/ I thought all the blood had been shed long ago." What makes The Blasters so effective is their ability to temper their exuberance with reality. The party, after all, has to end sometime. Here's hoping that we don't see any such dark nights around here anytime soon.