Guy Davis likes his blues with a dose of laughter, judging from his raucous performance Friday night at Caffe Lena.
The New York City singer, songwriter and actor spent nearly as much of his time on stage making wisecracks and telling stories as he did singing. For two sets totaling about 90 minutes, Davis quipped about the recent presidential election, joked about his family, and of course told the often humorous stories behind the new and very old songs he performed, as the packed house laughed, stomped and cheered along.
The lighthearted nature of the show only served to enhance the fact that Davis is a monster guitar player and an incredible singer, and in such a relaxed, intimate setting, he was able to really let loose.
Davis kicked off the first set in high gear with a Skip James number, “Mighty Good Leader,” an immediate showcase for his masterful finger-picking skills. Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine” followed, with Davis exchanging six strings for 12 and busting out some mean slide licks. He continued to switch instruments and tunings throughout the evening, also touching on five-string banjo, foot percussion and harmonica.
Davis is known for keeping acoustic blues traditions alive, and he played plenty of old songs, from Muddy Waters to Willie Dixon. But he just as easily inhabited his original material, which proved to be some of the best in the first set — “Lost Again” cataloged a series of “wrong” decisions to great humorous effect, while “Love Looks Good on You” split the difference between genuine heartfelt balladry and Davis’ more lighthearted inclinations.
He closed out the first set with “Did You See My Baby,” eschewing guitar completely for a call-and-response duel between his own smoky vocals and his harmonica playing. Never has a harmonica sounded so funny.
The evening’s second set brought even more interesting wrinkles to Davis’ performance. His spot-on version of Bob Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You” — the title track to Davis’ own 2009 album — elicited some of the loudest applause of the evening. He got even more serious on “Statesboro Blues” and “Loneliest Road That I Know,” both of which featured some of his finest guitar playing.
But Davis couldn’t stay completely serious for long — “Chocolate Man” offered up plenty of innuendo, while “Shortening Bread” gave the audience a chance to join in on the song’s hook. Late in the evening, he finally tackled a few songs and stories — complete with different character voices — in an abbreviated version of his one-man show “The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed With the Blues,” released as a double CD just last year.
Western Massachusetts duo Moonshine Holler, Paula Bradley and Bill Dillof, opened with a short set of old-timey blues in the country vein, tackling everything from the Dixon Brothers to Gene Autry. For the first half of the set, Bradley played acoustic guitar and handled most of the lead vocals, while Dillof punctuated the skeletal songs with rough-hewn harmonies and mournful Hawaiian slide guitar.
Best here was the Autry song “Rheumatism Blues,” which showed the duo’s playful side. Later, Dillof switched to banjo, and the set culminated with an Uncle Dave Macon song featuring banjo, the duo’s ever-present vocal harmonies, and body percussion and tap dancing from Bradley.