The Horror of It All
Fat Possum/Epitaph 80315-2
Early in his career, John Lee Hooker frequently recorded with just him and his electric guitar (and his stomping foot). No band could keep up with the irregular rhythms and peculiar guitar lines of the Hook, the reasoning went. Until now, I never heard anybody who could use such unorthodox rhythm, timing, tuning and soloing with the same effect as Hooker. Then came CeDell Davis. If ever a man needed likewise to be left alone by his producers, it’s him. And on this release, that’s just what happens.
I’m not suggesting he sounds like Hooker; he’s nowhere near as bass-heavy, and his use of a slide (a kitchen knife, actually) immediately sets him off. But like the early Hooker, Davis is often perceived as out of tune, out of time, his music seen as somehow unskilled, accidental. But check out "Chicken Hawk." Those thumping, turning, hollow-sounding guitar notes that bob up throughout the song — how can anyone believe he does that by accident? And this is before we even get to the nasty solo passage.
No, it’s apparent from the opening "Coon Can Mattie," with its halting, deliberate country intro, and, soon, Davis’s running-at-the-mouth vocals, that we are in the presence of a man who speaks his own language. He’ll make you want to speak it too.
There’s his crawlin’ kingsnake take on "Keep on Snatchin’ It Back"; the way he expresses "The Horror" more with instrument than with voice; the two guitars (the second by the redoubtable Kenny Brown) moving through the song as resolutely and remorsefully as flood waters moving down the Delta … well, you get the idea.
Davis is one of a long line of bluesmen who used such unorthodox techniques to expand the boundaries of the music and give themselves their own unique voice. And if you ask me, CeDell Davis, more than anyone else today, lets us feel close to the original source of the blues.
— John Morthland