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McMurtry, Alvin share their visions of the lost

Dave Alvin and James McMurtry write about the same things: the lonely places west of the Mississippi, lost jobs, lost loves, lost dreams. But their co headlining show at the Paradise Thursday showed how differently they deliver their visions.

Alvin, late of the Blasters and X among others, is slightly older and fond of both the music and the showbiz of the roadhouse kings of earlier eras. In the opening slot, he thanked us all for "coming out on the coldest night of the year" before ripping through an hourlong set of old favorites and tunes from his 2006 album of California songwriter covers, "West of the West."

After a blistering "So Long Baby, Goodbye" to open, he covered "Redneck Friend" by "that noted modern bluesman Jackson Browne." But he delivered it as a cheerful, leering shuffle that invoked another of his Cali heroes, Merle Haggard. Those two don't often get mentioned in the same paragraph .

The set, though, was mostly about Alvin's slashing single-note guitar runs and rockin' backup quartet. It wasn't the hardest he's ever brought the hammer down on "Ashgrove," but it was pretty good, and "Fourth of July" and a frantic "Marie, Marie" ended things on an up note. Only his great, minimalist "Dry River" -- dedicated to McMurtry -- was ill served by his grinning roadhouse vibe.

No grins from McMurtry. His growly voice and deadpan expression change little, whether he's lamenting the Iraq war or cracking a dirty joke, but this puts the songs front and center. And he is, arguably, the best songwriter working right now, using details and brand names to expose a blue-collar America where the career options seem to be a Wal-Mart uniform or desert camouflage, or maybe a meth lab.

Backed as usual by his Heartless Bastards, McMurtry layered fuzzy, stinging guitar over 90-plus minutes of his best, including "Saint Mary of the Woods," "Red Dress," and "Too Long in the Wasteland." Protest rant "We Can't Make It Here" drew cheers, but as usual the gonzo epic "Choctaw Bingo" was the biggest crowd pleaser, causing spasms of inappropriate booty-shaking among the mostly male, mostly gray-haired fans who seemed to know every word by heart.

Next time, guys, how about Alvin grins his way through "Choctaw Bingo," and McMurtry plays "Dry River" with the reverence it deserves?