It's not unusual for estranged musicians to reconcile and work together again. Neither is it unprecedented for a musician to drop old animosities when the death of a longtime band mate helps bring big-picture priorities into focus. But brothers Dave and Phil Alvin, the founding members of the roots-rock band the Blasters, may be the first musicians to put those scenarios together.
Their latest album -- "Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy," released last month -- marks their first collaborative disc in 30 years and their first-ever album as brothers, instead of as members of the Blasters.
But what makes it quite possibly unique in the annals of pop music is that it's the result of a musician who actually died and came back to life.
"It's been quite a profound experience," says Phil Alvin, the Blasters' full-throated lead singer, who is sitting beside his younger brother in a booth at one of their favorite old haunts, the Chris' & Pitt's barbecue joint in their hometown of Downey.
The elder Alvin brother was on tour in Spain two years ago when he felt ill, and was taken to a local hospital. While undergoing treatment for an infection from an abscessed tooth that had caused his throat to swell almost closed, his heart stopped and his vital signs flat-lined. Twice.
Phil was technically dead before being resuscitated both times by the attending physician, Dr. Mariella Anaya Sifuentes, whom Alvin subsequently serenaded by singing "Maria Maria," his Spanish-language rendition of one of the Blasters' cornerstone songs, "Marie Marie."
At the restaurant, Phil is the first to address what it's like to be dead. "When I first became conscious," he says, "I knew I was coming out of some ultimate-nothing-peace, and just for an instant it was like ... 'Awww.' Then I started thinking about people I love and all that, and all the responsibility, and that was all good."
But lead guitarist and songwriter Dave quickly interjects some humor. "So, what's it like there, Phil, on the other side?" he asks. "Is it comfy? They got 7-Elevens?"
"Oh, it is comfy," Phil says.
"Does everybody get a car?" Dave asks.
"Yes, there is plenty of parking," Phil says.
That brush with the other side definitely brought the brothers together and helped mend their sometimes rocky relationship.
When the Blasters got their start in the late 1970s, '50s-inspired primal rock and hard-hitting blues were barely on the pop-music radar. Disco was going strong with hits by Donna Summer, the Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor, while '70s rock throbbed through the songs of the Eagles, Styx and the Doobie Brothers.
By the early '80s, however, Dave and Phil Alvin had become key players on an underground scene in which roots music was flourishing with L.A. acts such as the Blasters, Los Lobos, Rank and File, Dwight Yoakam and Lone Justice. Their kind of music finally reached the mainstream when the Stray Cats took rockabilly-infused hits to the top of the national pop charts.
Phil and Dave Alvin soon became immersed in the early rock, blues, R&B and folk of Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis. For "Common Ground," they could have recorded a tribute to any one of those early heroes. But they settled on Broonzy because, as Dave puts it, "That's the record Phil came home with -- that was all late-'30s recordings, and that was an eye-opening thing."
Broonzy didn't play just one style of blues. "Big Bill had such a vast quantity of songs in a vast quantity of styles (that) you can make a pretty varied record," Dave continues. "He just did everything. So on ("Common Ground"), there's 12 different examples of how to play the blues."
Prior to this disc, the Alvin brothers had last recorded together on the Blasters' "Hard Line" album in 1985. When that was finished, Dave left the band to pursue his solo career.
He first joined the punk band X as lead guitarist, and later teamed again with X singers Exene Cervenka and John Doe in their country-folk side project the Knitters. Subsequently, Dave released a series of solo albums that were widely lauded for his astute, socially conscious and character-rich songwriting.
Reconnecting with Phil has resurrected the idea that someday there might be a new Blasters recording with Dave Alvin on board -- something many Blasters fans had considered no more likely than a man coming back from the dead.
"Maybe," Dave says, "but the idea of writing 10 songs that all five Blasters can sink their teeth into at this point ..." His voice trails off into uncertainty. "We could certainly do a record of Junior Parker, or Howlin' Wolf songs."
And then the notion of something eternal crops up again. "In some ways, this type of music doesn't die," Dave says. "It goes through bleak periods or droughts, but I think there's always going to be ... kids like us, who are looking for something else. We may not be in the majority, but there will always be a sizable minority of oddballs that find purpose in old music, find meaning in the older music, and then take it wherever they're going to take it from there."