Guy Davis can act, direct, write, compose…and he can play the blues.
In a world where few acoustic country blues performers thrive, Guy Davis has made his mark, serving as an effective ambassador of the great African American music form along with Keb’ Mo’ (early on, at least) and old pal Eric Bibb.
Davis, the son of actors and civil rights activists Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis, made his first record in ’78 but for a while followed in his parent’s footsteps and pursued an acclaimed acting career. Eventually, he made his way back to acoustic roots music by the mid 90s. Davis’ draws his blues from some of the best: Son House, Blind Willie McTell, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, among others.
A lot of people can still play that country folk blues, so what makes Guy Davis so special? Like Bibb, he might be from NYC, but he immersed himself in the stuff as a child, learned from some of the best and worked at it his whole life, even when he was acting full time. He’s also gifted with a gruff, sincere voice, and a nifty fingerpicking style not that far removed from Robert Johnson. Ultimately, it just comes down to feel, and Davis does feel it.
Juba Dance is his first for roots record label M.C. Records and this one is most notable for featuring Italian harmonica master Fabrizio Poggi on most of the songs, which are a balanced combination of Davis originals and some tasty old blues covers. Combined with Davis on acoustic guitars, banjo, rudimentary percussion and vocal, the duo forms a modern-day version of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. The head-nodding “Lost Again” even treats us to Davis on high harmonica and Poggi on low harmonica.
There are plenty of other treats in store on Juba, belying any notion that there isn’t anything left fresh and new to do with such an old music form. Davis plays a rustic sounding bottleneck banjo on “Satisfied” that perfectly captures the essence of this prison spiritual. He plays a lively claw-hammer banjo for “Dance Juba Dance,” and undertakes McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” with nothing but a six-string acoustic guitar, but inserts some RnB stylings to it.
Noted blues and gospel singer Lea Gilmore duets with Davis for the old 1928 Chippie Hill tune “Some Cold Rainy Day” that’s reminiscent of the hot jazz of its day, missing only Satchmo’s cornet. The Blind Boys of Alabama supply uplifting backing vocals for Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” giving it a noble aura.
In addition to contributions on some of those aforementioned tunes, Poggi’s genuinely pastoral, joyful harp goes good with Davis’s slide on “My Eyes Keep Me Trouble” and expresses the dirty lowdown blues with conviction for “Black Coffee.”
The music was recorded in Italy and the harp player, who also co-produced the record, is from there, too. But there was never a single moment where the music itself left the Piedmont or the Mississippi Delta. Blues, after all, is a state of mind, and bolstered by the harmonica and input from Poggi, Juba Dance has its heart in the exact right place.