The Third Mind - First Edition
by Peter Grainger
Who ever said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, has never met Dave Alvin. The Californian singer-songwriter from the L.A. working-class suburb of Downey, has re-invented himself many times over since emerging in the late 70s, fronting punkabilly
band The Blasters with his older brother Phil. Forty-odd years on, the younger Alvin has surrounded himself with an array of amazing improvisers for a psychedelic wig-out of gigantean proportions, that would’ve made Jimi Hendrix blush, then gush.
Alvin is calling this first foray into late sixties-inspired jamming, as The Third Mind (which is also the name of a book by Beat Generation novelists William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, known for their “cut-up technique” of editing and
rearranging phrases and sentences to create new narratives; a rather appropriate metaphor for the jamming and re-editing of the sonic material Alvin and Co ended up creating).
Back in the days when The Blasters first began recording, initially for the punk label Slash Records, Alvin favoured short, punchy tunes of both blues, R&B and early rock n’ roll covers along with his own compositions based on those traditional
styles (you may even have heard some of Alvin’s early originals like “Marie, Marie”, “American Music” and “Border Radio”, which he still sometimes plays at his shows). The Blasters weren’t alone trading roots-rock to punk crowds in the late
70s— so too were The Clash, Joe Ely, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Dave Edmunds & Nick Lowe with Rockpile, Dire Straits, and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. None of these acts were even remotely aligned with acid-fueled long-form experimenters like Hendrix,
Grateful Dead or Quicksilver Messenger Service. In those days, lean was mean, tight was right. Alvin’s solos were as concise and crystalline as those by Robbie Robertson, who squeezed out spunky sparks between verses and choruses in his songs for The Band.
After quitting The Blasters, Alvin carried his tough, bluesy influences into even punkier climes as a member of both The Knitters and X, before re-inventing himself yet again as a well-rounded Americana singer-songwriter, as comfortable pulling from Sonny
Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf as he was from Little Richard and Chuck Berry, not to mention country stars Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and folk heroes John Prine and Bob Dylan. Alvin even won a Grammy in 2001 for Best Traditional Folk Album
for his “Public Domain: Songs From The Wild Land”. He was generally known for an uncluttered, economical musical style, which makes this new Third Mind project all that more surprising, because it is so expansive and esoteric.
Alvin began hinting that longer-form expression might be available to him in 2011, on some of his lengthiest and most frenetic guitar workouts ever, on both the studio and live cuts included in the expanded version of his very electric “Eleven-Eleven” CD.
By mid-2019, Alvin began fixating on something novel for him, what he called his “crazy idea” of recording the way Miles Davis did in the late sixties ala “In A Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew”, getting a talented ensemble of players into a room, jamming for
a week at a time, then editing that material down into album side-long slices. Alvin didn’t have to look far for willing participants.
Alvin has known bassist Vic Krummenacher and guitarist Dave Immergluck from fellow Californian indie rockers Camper Van Beethoven since the mid-80s, when they played many of the same clubs; CVB weren’t versed in rockabilly, R&B or the blues like Alvin,
they were UC Santa Cruz liberal arts students, who fell into punk, ska and indie rock ala Sonic Youth with healthy helpings of Anglo psych-pop like early Kinks, The Who pre-“Tommy” and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Oddly, like Alvin, jazz and Westcoast
psychedelia weren’t seemingly on their radar until The Third Mind came together.
Yet Krummenacher is saying now, that he and Alvin had a chat years ago, about doing a club residency in San Francisco, where they might have a blast doing some jamming like the classic San Fran bands did in the late sixties. Alvin mentioned wanting to
learn Grateful Dead’s anthem “Truckin’” as a starting point. Both Alvin and Krummenacher already knew some of the Dead’s repertoire; Alvin had recorded Jerry Garcia’s “Loser” and Krummenacher played the song many times with the CVB offshoot Cracker.
Nothing came of the idea then, but the seeds were sown.
Then early in 2019, Krummenacher came into some extra cash, deciding to finally broach Alvin with that jamming idea they’d discussed long before. Krummenacher invited his old CVB and Cracker buddy Immergluck to take a leave of absence from John Hiatt’s
band and bring his guitar along to what was to be a ‘jam session’, just to see what could happen. Alvin knew they needed a sticks-man with big ears who understood the importance of ‘groove’, looking no further than his pal Richard Thompson’s drummer,
Michael Jerome. Most of the guys could sing, but they wanted a higher voice too, so Jesse Sykes was invited. Alvin’s old X-bandmate DJ Bonebrake plays vibes on a couple of tracks. Even a neighbourhood buddy Jack Rudy was strong-armed into playing harmonica.
Alvin says on his website that “There were no rehearsals or written musical arrangements. Just decide on a key, start recording and see what happens.” It wasn’t quite as open-ended as a Miles Davis session, because except for one collective original, all
the other pieces are late 60s psychedelic classics, used as frame-works or templates, more than anything else.
The Third Mind’s First Edition kicks off with Alice Coltrane’s visionary modal trip, “Journey In Satchidananda”; John Coltrane’s widow’s Indian-sounding dreamscape is given more of a bluesy treatment here. The original’s lead lines were played by tenor
saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who Alvin emulates rather than apes. The mood and spirit of the original is present, and the simple, throbbing bass-line too, but the rest of it is very much a rapt passage into uncharted territory.
“The Dolphins” is the old Fred Neil song, that’s been recorded by many including Tim Buckley and Linda Ronstadt; the message is as timely now as it was in the mid-60s. Alvin’s singing has a deep, resonant tone like Neil’s, who trails his voice at the end
of each line, adding instant gravitas to the ecological warning within. Sykes adds a lilting lift with her high harmony. It is pure sonic bliss, even if the message is starkly serious.
“Claudia Cardinale” takes its name from the sultry late 60s actress. The song was created on the spot, when Alvin told the band, “Just imagine you’re on the beach in the 1960s with Claudia Cardinale.” Engineer Craig Parker reportedly flashed images of her
on several screens in the studio to inspire the musicians. It has a hazy, lazy spaghetti-western vibe, with Alvin channeling his perfect imitation of Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina and original Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green. It is that good.
“Morning Dew” was tailor-made for The Third Mind. They took cues from the Dead’s arrangement of the anti-war ballad; it was written by Bonnie Dobson, who re-enacted some of the plot of the movie “On The Beach”. Jesse Sykes was brought in especially for this
song—and her aching vocal pulls you right into the drama of two shell-shocked survivors of an atomic holocaust, discussing what the hell happened. Alvin handles the solo—which soars as high as Garcia’s did on “Europe ‘72”.
The other vocal performance is “Reverberation”, written by Roky Erickson of famed Texan psychedelic rangers, The 13th Floor Elevators. It is a thrashy, garage-rock thumper, the loudest track here. Very shagadelic, baby!
What follows are three vaguely Eastern-sounding yet remarkably different takes of “East West” (of five versions recorded); it is a highly influential modal workout recorded in 1966 by the multi-racial Butterfield Blues Band, which featured duelling guitars
by Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield’s wailing harp. That original quivering 13-minute track influenced a whole generation of players including Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana, Duane Allman, Neil Young, and more recently, Tom Verlaine of
Television, Lenny Kaye of The Patti Smith Group and Derek Trucks of the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, among scores of others.
For me, these long modal explorations of “East West” are where The Third Mind shines the brightest. On the jazz front, think Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” or John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme”; on the rockier side, think The Dead’s “Dark Star”, “The End” by The Doors,
the Donovan/Shawn Phillips classic “Season of the Witch”, the Al Kooper-Mike Bloomfield 1968 excursion “His Holy Modal Majesty”, even Jefferson Airplane’s psych-pop hit “White Rabbit”.
It is no surprise then, that deep in the liner notes, you will find this collection is dedicated to the aforementioned Mike Bloomfield, Roky Erickson and Quicksilver guitarists Gary Duncan and John Cipollina. Being a First Edition, it does make you wonder if a
Second Edition is already in the can or at least in the offing. Alvin is planning on touring the record, utilizing other guitarists like Kim Thayil of Soundgarden. I could see future Mind melds too, with like-minded souls like Richard Thompson, Albert Lee or Robben
Ford joining in. So if you are in need of a timeless sonic escape, strap yourself in for a rollicking ride into the inner cosmos of The Third Mind.