In its first-ever show Friday at 440 Upstairs, the Eighth Step was jammed for folk-blues singer-guitarist Guy Davis. After Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’, Davis is the acoustic-blues guy of his time — exponent of a venerable tradition, with great musical and emotional authority.
After warming up with “Saturday Blues,” he ignited a singalong on “Payday Blues.” Engaging the crowd was never a problem.
Surrounded by guitars and a banjo, sometimes donning a harmonica holder and speaking nearly as much as he sang, Davis delivered venerable songs with admirable freshness and skill.
The only original in the first of his two sets, “Lime Town,” borrowed heavily from Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” and Davis otherwise paid respect to masters of the last century.
He personalized some more than others as his own: He introduced Charles Brown’s “Driftin’ Blues” with a single harmonica note stretched to humorously excessive length through rotary breathing and added a distinctive flourish at the end, a guitar statement of poignant resignation that added depth to its forlornness.
He introduced Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied” by recalling Muddy’s Royal Albert Hall concert, claiming the Queen, who actually did attend, had smoked Parliaments and drank gin there.
Maybe that’s what happened, maybe not — but the sound effects he injected into the harmonica-powered tale of a chain-gang escape that closed his last set left little doubt that it was true.
The first set sidestepped museum-ish stiffness through levity and loving attention to detail, and the more personal second set felt like a party in the basement of the museum.
New songs from last year’s highly praised “Skunkmello” album, or that are even newer, sparkled in the second set, which generous encores liberally stretched. “Going Back to Silver Spring” (naturally, a romantic quest) had a silvery sound from Davis’ 12-string, while “Tell Me Where the Road Is” and “Po’ Boy” both lamented and celebrated his vagabond life on tour. They bookended Willie Dixon’s epic “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and Leadbelly’s field holler “Ain’t Going Down to the Well No More” also added antique flavor late in the show.
However, his own best songs imparted a special personal flavor. “Hookin’ Bull at the Landing” recalled a cryptic dinner table remark of his late father Ossie Davis, a railroad crew waterboy before becoming a celebrated actor. Davis wrote the loving, protective “Watch Over Me” for his son, but joked that his son learned it to put Davis himself to sleep.
Davis sang a lot about railroads, but a new song “Steamboat Captain” celebrated a pre-railroad age. Davis was less precise at times than Taj Mahal or Keb’ Mo’ at their most polished: He flubbed lyrics occasionally and took a long time to tune.
He turned these lapses to his advantage, however, humanizing a performance that might otherwise have seemed too slick and easy. His robust guitar picking — thumb thumping basslines downward, fingers pulling upward to tug the melody along — faltered less than his memory of the lyrics and this conveyed spontaneity and solidity at once.