Dave Alvin on making music, living with cancer and performing in churches

Dave Alvin isn’t making any promises, but it’s possible his headlining April 29 performance at the 2023 Adams Avenue Unplugged festival might include cameos by some of his longtime San Diego musical pals.

“I’m thinking about Cindy Lee (Berryhill), Dead Rock West and Joey (Harris) and Jerry (Raney) from the Beat Farmers. I can’t guarantee it, but there might be some good musical ‘goofing off’ on stage,” said two-time Grammy Award-winner Alvin, speaking from his Los Angeles home.

Not coincidentally, Harris, Raney and Dead Rock West are also part of the lineup for this year’s edition of the annual music marathon, which will feature more than 60 artists — mostly of the troubadour variety — performing in 20 venues along Adams Avenue in Kensington, Normal Heights and University Heights.

Produced by the Adams Avenue Business Association, the homegrown Unplugged event debuted in 2012. It replaced the then-18-year-old Adams Avenue Roots Festival, which had been launched by Lou Curtiss as a sequel to his storied San Diego Folk Festival.

All but one of Saturday’s performances are free. The sole exception is Alvin’s ticketed headlining set in the Normal Heights United Church, adjacent to the Adams Avenue Recreation Center.

The church is the former home of the Acoustic Music San Diego concert series and a familiar venue for Alvin, who cofounded the roots-rocking band The Blasters in 1979. After kicking off his solo career in 1986, he won the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album and the 2015 Grammy for Best Blues Album.

“I played a number of concerts in that church and it has very good acoustics like a lot of older churches,” Alvin said. “And I always liked (now-retired Acoustic Music San Diego mastermind) Carey Driscoll.”

Last year saw the release of Alvin’s book, “New Highway: Selected Lyrics, Poems, Prose, Essays, Eulogies and Blues,” and of an expanded version of his 2011 album, “Eleven Eleven.” A memoir and a new solo album are now in the works, along with the November release of Alvin’s second album with the improvisation-fueled rock band The Third Mind.

Does music mean something different to him now than in 1979 when Alvin and his older brother, Phil, cofounded The Blasters in Downey?

“That’s a good question,” Dave Alvin replied. “Yes, and no.”

He paused for emphasis.

“With The Blasters,” Alvin said, “the thing I got excited about was playing live. Some musicians get addicted to being in the studio, or to writing songs, and nothing else. Me, I’m addicted to playing live.

“Whether The Blasters were playing in a club to 20 people who didn’t know who we were, or in front of 17,000 angry Queen fans when we were opening for Queen, I loved being there and still do. It’s like a runner’s high, or a meditative state, and old songs sound new and new songs sound old.”

Alvin chuckled.

“Other things have certainly changed,” he noted. “In our early days, it was: ‘Can we get more beer?’ Now, I don’t drink. But the onstage high I get hasn’t changed at all.”

Dave Alvin on living with cancer

Dave Alvin doesn’t want to waste even a minute when it comes to writing his memoir, releasing his next solo album or completing anything else he has planned.

In May 2020, barely two months after the pandemic shutdown began, the two-time Grammy Award-winner was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His doctors subsequently discovered Alvin had stage-four colorectal cancer and that it had spread to his liver.

He underwent extensive surgery in 2021. The heavy regimen of chemotherapy and radiation treatment Alvin underwent made his hands swell and caused such severe neuropathy he was unable to play or even pick up a guitar for nearly six months.

In June 2021, less than three weeks after being declared he was “cancer-free,” Alvin learned he had cancer in his lungs and likely had less than a year to live.

“I’ve had three surgeries,” said the 67-year-old musician. “Right now, technically, I’m in remission. I did a CAT Scan last week to see if the cancer has returned. I’ll probably get those results right before I do my (April 29) San Diego show.”

Alvin has spent more than 40 years of his life as a touring and recording musician. His cancer has been life-changing for him in more way than one.

“I’ll sound like a cheerleader or a self-help guru,” he said. “But what it really boils down to is that — if you can get through it — everything else is frosting, I should have been dead from the stage-four cancer, and I’m not. So, even the crappy days I have now are not crappy.

“Yesterday, I was out hiking in the hills. Two years ago, I couldn’t do that and a year ago it was questionable. Now, I’m out touring, playing gigs, recording. And every time I’m doing these things, I think: ‘Am I really doing this?’

“But that applies to everything, including eating a meal or starting the car. ‘Hey, the car’s starting!’ Every little moment now is a triumph.”


2023 Adams Avenue Unplugged

With: Dave Alvin, Sara Petite, Gregory Page, Joey Harris & Jerry Raney, Dead Rock West, Sven-Eric Seaholm, Fred Heath & The Sidewinders and more than 50 other artists.

When: Noon to 10 p.m. April 29

Where: Twenty restaurants, bars and cafes along Adams Avenue, from the Kensington Cafe in Kensington to Twiggs Bakery in University Heights, with a majority of the venues in Normal Heights.

Tickets: Free for all performances except Dave Alvin ($25), who performs at 7 p.m. at the Normal Heights United Church, 4650 Mansfield St. Tickets for Saturday’s 21-and-up VIP Beer & Food package are $24.

Phone: (619) 282-7329

Online: adamsavenueunplugged.com

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