Guy Davis,
Sweetheart Like You
(Red House, 2009)

In this entertaining follow-up to the widely praised Skunkmello (which I reviewed here on 10 June 2006), Guy Davis collaborates again with producer/guitarist John Platania to offer up a modern -- though not too modern -- take on traditional and trad-inflected African-American music.

The title song, of course, is not that; "Sweetheart" first appeared on Bob Dylan's 1983 Infidels. But Davis insists (and he'll have no quarrel from me) that "Dylan was reincarnated from a very big fat black bluesman and all that talent got squeezed into his skinny little body." This is Davis's second go-round with the song, the first version having appeared on Red House's 2001 tribute anthology A Nod to Bob.

Sweetheart Like You showcases an experienced professional at work, an artist who knows himself and what he wants to do with that information. Davis is sufficiently self-assured, for instance, to feel he is not required to fill his album solely with self-composed material (though he's a fine songwriter), which is admirable in itself. Yet more impressively, he's willing to cover blues warhorses such as "Can't Be Satisfied" (from Muddy Waters) and "Baby, Please Don't Go" (from Big Joe Williams, based on the traditional "Another Man Done Gone") and reshape them creatively. "Satisfied," which Muddy was singing when Alan Lomax discovered him in Mississippi, gets performed as a banjo piece. It more than satisfies.

Davis is not a deep bluesman in the Delta sense, and Son House virtually defines "deep blues." Even so, Davis reinvents House's "Down South Blues" -- not to be confused with other songs of the same name -- as a gently swinging Mississippi John Hurt-style number, notwithstanding the grim prisoner's lyrics. He also reworks, to comparably attractive effect, a couple of songs associated with Lead Belly, and his "Slow Motion Daddy" borrows the melody of "Jack o' Diamonds." Davis's immersion in the older, rural, pre-blues musical traditions of the African-American South informs just about everything he does. It's a great part of what -- aside from his undeniable singing, playing, and performing gift -- makes him appealing, and it gives his melodies their particular melodic character. Though it is usual to characterize Davis as a blues artist, and that's not inaccurate, he's more like an old-time songster possessed of a broader vernacular-music vocabulary.

Accompanying himself on assorted acoustic guitars and banjos, plus mandolin and harmonica, he fronts an excellent studio band that gives his singing and playing appropriate breathing room. The originals range from the blues-drenched to the topical to the comic. The delightful "Bring Back Storyville" could have been sung on a Southern street corner a century ago, while the equally enchanting "Angels Are Calling" calls up echoes of modern black gospel and sweet Motown-style harmonies.

Even with the ostensibly serious (and trad-sounding) "Going Back to Silver Spring," Davis's sense of humor is never far away. The liner notes observe, "A girl in Maryland promised to send me naked pictures of herself, if I wrote a song for her. I wrote it in one day. Hey! Where are those pictures at!!" Yes, the disappointments of an artist's life are indeed enough to give a man the blues.

review by
Jerome Clark

24 January 2009

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