Guy Davis,
(Red House, 2006)

I'm not sure that "I laughed so hard that I pooped my pants" is a sentiment that blues language, albeit sometimes crude, needed, but it's there in the first cut, African-American folk-bluesman Guy Davis's rewrite of "Natural Born Eas'man." ("Eas'man" is an archaic term for "easy man," known less colorfully these days as "pimp.") Davis manages, however, to deliver the lyric with a playful humor that ought to defuse any offense the more delicate listener may otherwise be inclined to take.

Skunkmello, Davis's most accomplished recording to date, doesn't deal in deep blues, but it does deliver convincing, melodic blues as well as other tradition-based music, sung in the relaxed tones of a Piedmont songster and in an assortment of settings.

The songs are traditionals (e.g., "Po' Boy, Great Long Ways from Home"), Chicago-blues standards ("Going Down Slow") and originals. In the last category is one undeniable stunner, "Hooking Bull at the Landing," composed on the occasion of his father's death. (His father was the revered stage and film actor Ossie Davis.) Like most of Davis's originals, it looks back to older African-American musical styles (in this instance acoustic slide-guitar blues and 19th-century spirituals), and the effect is to make the song sound as if it carries the weight not only of personal grief but of history itself. In a more light-hearted vein, Davis gently parodies Mississippi John Hurt's "Candy Man" with his own "Chocolate Man."

Rather less winning, "Uncle Tom is Dead" has Davis arguing for blues' continuing legitimacy in African-American life to a skeptical young man who contends that rap has rendered blues obsolete. In the course of this, Davis does some rapping himself. All nobly intended, I'm sure, but it is also ham-handed and a bit painful to hear. Not that the discussion and debate aren't worth having -- but not in this format. Perhaps anticipating this criticism, Davis considerately places "Uncle Tom" at the end of the disc.

Aside from this single misstep, Skunkmello feels mostly like a pleasant outing in interesting company. There's the amiable Davis, his keen-eared producer John Platania and -- here and there -- a band whose members include the likes of Mark Naftalin (keyboards, an original member of Paul Butterfield's famous outfit), Walt Michael (mandolin, resonator guitar and veteran old-time player) and others comparably gifted. A musical time-traveler, Davis -- whose enthusiasms begin with post-war electric blues and head resolutely backward from there into a lost age of banjo tunes, jug bands, rags, hobo rambles and the like -- ranges through the decades with supreme assurance.

by Jerome Clark
10 June 2006

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