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Guy Davis sings the blues with theatrical flair

Thursday, January 16, 2014
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Bluesman Guy Davis performs at WAMC’s The Linda on Friday. (Photo by Richard Dowdy)
Bluesman Guy Davis performs at WAMC’s The Linda on Friday. (Photo by Richard Dowdy)

Guy Davis packs a pedigree almost as powerful as Trombone Shorty’s (more on him later) when he plays on Friday at WAMC’s The Linda.

The son of actors Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis, Guy Davis (one of three notables with that name; more on that later) grew up near New York City. But he sings the rural acoustic traditional music dubbed “country blues” back in the 1960s Folk Revival.

The younger Davis, 61, first built an acting career, the family business — until the Zora Neale Hurston/Langston Hughes/Taj Mahal Broadway collaboration “Mule Bone” in 1991 allowed him to combine acting and music. More stage and screen gigs followed, including the lead in “Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil” off-Broadway, and as Dr. Josh Hall on “One Life to Live.”

Inspired by old blues masters discovered in the South during the Folk Revival and brought to New York, Davis changed focus. Music eventually won; especially after his Robert Johnson portrayal earned him the Blues Foundation’s “Keeping the Blues Alive Award.”

But Davis makes music on his own terms, often with a strong theatrical flair that enhances songs and sounds with the sights of an accomplished actor.

His stage-music pieces often feature his evocative writing, including “In Bed With the Blues: The Adventures of Fishy Waters” and “Two Hah Hahs and a Homeboy,” co-starring his parents in 1995.

That same year, Davis released his breakthrough album, “Stomp Down Rider” — a live set displaying both his musical skills and his performing power. Like an East Coast Otis Taylor, Davis plays banjo as much as guitar. Also like Taylor, he makes music that sounds simple but requires enormous sophistication to achieve.

Davis recorded “Juba,” his latest album (his 15th since 1978), with harmonica player Fabrizio Poggi; the Blind Boys of Alabama help him take “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” straight to heaven. This may be the least sad blues album in years, reminding us that the earliest blues masters played for dancing delight as much as for deep despair.

And there’s room at WAMC’s The Linda (339 Central Ave., Albany) to dance. Guy Davis plays and sings the blues on Friday at 8 p.m. Admission is $20. 465-5233 ext. 4, www.wamcarts.org.

Two oh yeahs

Oh, yeah — those three Guy Davis guys: We’ve talked about bluesman Guy Davis. Another Guy Davis is a celebrated graphic artist specializing in comic books. The third Guy Davis runs a California winery. Artist Guy Davis designed the cover of bluesman Guy Davis’ album “Legacy,” and he designed the label of a wine bottle created by the vintner Guy Davis celebrating all three of them. Davis’ new “Juba” has earned Blues Music Award nominations for Acoustic Album of the Year and Acoustic Artist.

Oh, yeah — part two: Trombone Shorty, who comprehensively slayed The Egg on Sunday night.

I wrote and sent my Gazette review from my seat at the back of the totally packed (larger) Hart Theater at The Egg, the press critics’/cynics’/mega-fans’ row. This is basically a batch of longtime friends; most are harder to please than I am, but we were all knocked flat on our butts by Trombone Shorty and his band, Orleans Avenue.

After sending in my review, I bumped into Shorty, who’s slightly less short than I am, and his bassist, Mike “Bass-in-Your-Face” Ballard, in the lobby, where they’d been signing stuff and taking photos with fans.

I introduced myself to Shorty and asked, “What day are you playing Jazz Fest?” (you know: the two-weekend spring music explosion in New Orleans.) Shorty said he’d play on the last Sunday.

(The schedule was announced Tuesday but wasn’t public on Sunday night. Yeah, it’s stunning! Also playing just on that last Sunday is Arcade Fire, John Fogerty, Delbert McClinton, Chick Corea, Aaron Neville, Dumpstaphunk, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Terence Blanchard — and more than 60 others, including two of Trombone Shorty’s cousins and a crew he once played in, the Stooges Brass Band.)

I asked, “You playing on the big stage?” Shorty smiled and said, “Yeah, man.” I said, “Wow, you own that spot now!” — the honored festival-closing slot on the SPAC-sized Acura Stage that hometown giants the Neville Brothers or the Radiators had long occupied, but that Trombone Shorty took over last year. Shorty backed away a bit from that and said, “I feel like I’m still auditioning for it!”

Another Phillips

Wait, there’s more: another bold bloodline, bearing talent across the generations.

On Sunday, Duncan Phillips follows his famous late father U. Utah Phillips onto the Caffe Lena stage. Utah played the Caffe for decades, with Duncan as his road manager in later years. Utah was famously unmanageable: an anarchist with an old Gibson and a headful of rebellious, even older union songs.

Duncan inherited the Gibson, the songs and the stories, toting all three — and a fine folk voice — onstage on Sunday at Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs). Opening Phillips’ 7 p.m. show is blues and jazz guitarist Walter Parks, longtime accompanist for the late, great Richie Havens. Admission is $18, advance; $20 at the door. 583-0022 www.caffelena.org.

More at Caffe Lena

Caffe Lena’s weekend hits with a bang: Local hero M.R. Poulopoulos — famed for facial hair as notable as Sean Rowe’s and songwriting in the same league — plays on Friday at 8 p.m. when the troubadour Caitlin Canty opens. Admission is $15, advance; $17 at the door.

On Saturday, the old-timey, oddly instrumented trio (gourd banjos, iron pipe megaphone, Sousaphone and contra-bass harmoniphoneum) Sheesham & Lotus & Son do double duty: a free “little folks” concert at 3 p.m. and an 8 p.m. show for grownups; admission for the latter is $16, advance; $18 at the door.

Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at hochanadel@dailygazette.net.

 
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