Monday, September 4, 2017

CD Review: Jesse Ed Davis's Red Dirt Boogie - The Atco Recordings 1970-1972 (2017)

Jesse Ed Davis's Red Dirt Boogie
Jesse Ed Davis was an extraordinarily-talented guitarist who parlayed his skills into a career as an in-demand session player and touring musician. Originally part of country legend Conway Twitty’s band, Davis switched gears when he became an integral part of root ‘n’ blues legend Taj Mahal’s band, playing on Mahal’s first three albums. Introduced to session work by Leon Russell in the late ‘60s, Davis would lend his talents to recordings by John Lee Hooker, Willie Nelson, Gene Clark (The Byrds), and many others.

Lesser-known – and tragically so – was Davis’s short-lived career as a solo artist. Launching his solo career with a self-titled release on the Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco, the guitarist’s debut featured high-profile musical guests like Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, Gram Parsons, and Alan White (Yes). Two subsequent critically-acclaimed albums would quickly follow, 1972’s Ululu (also released by Atco Records) and 1973’s Keep Me Comin’ (recorded for CBS). None of his albums sold too well in spite of their inspired blend of rock, blues, jazz, and country sounds and Davis’s incredible guitarplay. Davis would retreat back into session work, performing on albums like Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man and John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges as well as on albums by artists like Harry Nilsson, George Harrison, Donovan, and Tracy Nelson (Mother Earth).

Jesse Ed Davis’s Red Dirt Boogie

Real Gone Music’s Red Dirt Boogie: The Atco Recordings 1970-1972 offers every song from Davis’s two Atco albums, seventeen tunes in all, with the exception of his take on the traditional country jaunt “Oh, Susannah.” In its place, the label added a pair of studio outtakes in the form of the previously-unreleased basic track for “Rock N Roll Gypsies” and an unreleased instrumental, “Kiowa Teepee (Washita Love Child).” As the disc is squeezed for space at roughly 75 minutes, I personally might have dropped the former track and kept the latter and run both of Davis’s Atco albums in full in their original sequencing. For whatever reason, producers Gordon Anderson, Pat Thomas, and Mike Thomas chose to shake things up, and songs from both albums are intertwined, eliminating any sense of artistic evolution.

These minor cavils aside, Red Dirt Boogie is an impressive collection overall, offering stellar musicianship and an inspired mix of original songs, traditional material, and well-chosen covers. Davis was the consummate root ‘n’ blues artist, equally conversant in several musical styles and their history, and his knowledge and skills show in the grooves. While “Every Night Is Saturday Night” is a lyrical trifle, an up-tempo party song with blasts of manic horns and a foot-shuffling rhythm, it does display some fierce guitar licks. “Washita Love Child” is much better, combining Davis’s Kiowa-Comanche Indian heritage with Okie soul and a gospel fervor with low-slung vocals, a driving rhythm, angelic backing vocals, and what sounds like a guitar battle between Davis and guest Eric Clapton.

Rock N Roll Gypsies

Davis’s original “Reno Street Incident” displays the guitarist’s not-inconsiderable skills as a songwriter, the lyrics showing a fine eye for detail, Davis’s laid-back, nuanced vocals telling a sordid tale while the band rambles on, the languid vibe punctured time-to-time by Davis’s razor-sharp fretwork. A version of George Harrison’s “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” was released before Harrison would record the song, Davis backed by a band that included Dr. John on keyboards and Stax Records legend Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass. Davis’s take on the song is more honky-tonk flavored than George’s, with twangy instrumentation and stinging guitarplay. A cover of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” strikes a low-down soulful groove that offers, perhaps, one of Davis’s best vocal performances, backed by gorgeous backing harmonies.

The title track from his sophomore album, Davis’s “Ululu” opens with shimmering guitar lines and ethereal vox before settling into a mid-tempo hippie ballad with a hearty bass line and Jim Keltner’s strong tho’ subtle percussion. A cover of Leon Russell’s “Alcatraz” offers a funky rhythmic backdrop for Davis’s passionate vocals, which are almost smothered by the mix, while a cover of Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever” twangs-and-bangs with the best of them, Davis’s vocals more spoken than song, and accompanied by shards of nicely manic guitar.

“Golden Sun Goddess,” from Davis’s debut, is a delightfully wan slab of shiny cosmic pop with otherworldly harmonies, a subtle underlying bass line (Billy Rich?), and elegant guitar. The mid-tempo “Rock N Roll Gypsies” is a vintage sing-a-long with gang vocals, fiery guitar licks, and heavy drumbeats (Chuck Blackwell?) while “Kiowa Teepee (Washita Love Child)” is a tribute to Davis’s Native American ancestry, beginning with an Indian chant and rhythms before bursting into an infectious instrumental jam based on the melody of “Washita Love Child.” It’s a stunning performance and a great way to close out Red Dirt Boogie.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Tragically, by the end of the ‘70s, Davis’s personal demons would catch up with him and the guitarist spent much of the decade of the ‘80s battling addiction to drugs and alcohol before his death by overdose at the too-young age of 43 years old. Davis had resurfaced during the mid-‘80s, playing with Native American poet and activist John Trudell as part of the Graffiti Band, but his meager back catalog of solo work has gone in-and-out-of-print frequently through the years and has been hard to find by any measure.

Real Gone’s Red Dirt Boogie collection does a fine job of rescuing this underrated talent from obscurity, preserving Davis’s solo work and placing it in context with informative liner notes by noted writer and producer Pat Thomas. Davis wasn’t the most accomplished singer, his voice sounding like a cross between Leon Russell and Randy Newman – except grittier – but he did a fine job in conveying heart and soul in his material. While he also wasn’t the most gifted songwriter, Davis’s lyrics nevertheless told heartfelt stories forged from his personal experience. Where Jesse Ed really shined was with his phenomenal six-string skills, which provided energy and life to every performance. Davis is an artist worth rediscovery, Red Dirt Boogie an invaluable collection of ‘70s-era roots ‘n’ blues music. Grade: B (Real Gone Music, released June 9, 2017)

Buy the CD from Jesse Ed Davis’s Red Dirt Boogie: The Atco Recordings 1970-1972

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