LIVE: The Guy Davis Trio @ the Eighth Step at Proctors, 2/2/19
Review by Don Wilcock
At the end of his recent concert at the Eighth Step, Guy Davis stood up and swung his arms in an arc over his small, intimate audience, filleting his fingers like imaginary butterflies, and explaining that Pete Seeger’s greatest gift was not in his singing or his songwriting but in his ability to turn an audience of strangers into close friends by getting them to sing along. Davis had just accomplished the same thing.
For the encore, his trio performed Pete Seeger’s version of “Turn, Turn, Turn” with the audience singing along to every word. The whole show was transcendent. Guy was accompanied by Professor Louie on keyboards and Christopher James on accordion and mandolin, both of whom have a history of recording and performing with him. In simplest terms the show was like the film “O’ Brother Where Art Thou” come to life.
Mixing originals like “Kokomo Kid” and “Watch Over Me” with blues standards by Sleepy John Estes and John Lee Hooker, as well as Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay,” he seduced the audience into his timeless world that’s part Uncle Remus, part Howlin’ Wolf and all Guy Davis.
His stand-out number was “Wish I Hadn’t Stayed Away So Long” about the bell that rings on the midnight train carrying hobos home with its lyric, “I got home too late to say goodbye.” The difference between a bum and a hobo, he explained, is that a hobo is someone who goes where the work is. The song details the price one has to
pay working far from home. Davis wrote the song in 2014, the year both his mentor Pete Seeger and his mom actress Ruby Dee passed.
Much has been made about Guy Davis’ heritage as the son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, both important multi-talented artists, writers, producers and actors who were significant in breaking the stereotypes of African Americans by forwarding the Harlem Renaissance efforts of their contemporaries and mentors like Langston Hughes
and W.E.B. DuBois. While their influence on their son is obvious in the way he carries himself, his creative muse would seem to be more a product of his time with his grandmother in the rural south. In our interview, Davis said, “I guess both of my parents had talents.”
Davis says the only time he heard blues at home was when one of his babysitters played it, and in a 2015 interview he described the impact his grandmother Laura Davis had on him. She lived in rural North Carolina whereas Guy lived in Manhattan with his parents.
“My grandmother was a very close link to my southern roots. It was my grandmother whose voice sounded like the soil and sounded like rivers and sounded like the mud and the dirt. She used to tell stories. My grandmother didn’t have all that city baggage. She told about the hard times and family struggle, crazy things like
grandfather having to sit and fan flies off a dead body at a funeral, and that dead body sat up and there were two doors. Some people ran out the door on the left, and some people ran out the door on the right. One of those doors led to a bonfire, and the people who went on that side got burned up. Fortunately, my grandfather ran out
the side where there were no fires. So, my grandmother was the link more directly to the country than my father was.”