Guy Davis
Butt Naked Free
Red House Records RHR CD 142

On his fourth CD, Butt Naked Free, Guy Davis sounds so much like Taj Mahal did in the late í60s, itís a wonder the two arenít twins separated at birth. Back then, Mahal borrowed heavily from the acoustic genius of Mississippi John Hurt, the Rev. Gary Davis and Elizabeth Cotten. Davis does the same here.

The title track, an instrumental inspired by Davisí 5-year-old son, is pure Cotten, while "Sometimes I Wish" and "Meet Me Where the River Turns" are obvious nods to the Rev. Davis. "Sugarbelle Blue" and the double entendre-laden "High Flying Rocket" owe much to Hurtís style of agile fingerpicking. And on "Let Me Stay a While" and "My Rambling Ways," Davisí vocals are so close to Mahalís, both tracks could pass for outtakes from Tajís 1969 classic, Giant Steps/De Old Folks at Home.

Itís clear from the get-go that Davis, the 52-year-old son of actors/activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, is an accomplished player, but his strength lies in his song writing. Heís a master at putting modern lyrics to traditional blues.

On "Sugarbelle Blue," for example, Davis tells the story of an angry 15-year-old girl using older men (one of whom "looks like a two-dollar chicken on a three-dollar plate") to flee small-town life and break the grip of a broken-hearted mother who knows the errors of her daughterís ways. In the end, Davis tells us, "Ö the undertaker does his best." There is no better portrayal of a parentís blues.

Davis, who now lives in Harlem, also is adept at wrapping new versions of Deep South lyrics in Delta melodies. In fact, on first listen, Butt Naked Free sounds like a collection of covers of obscure tunes by the aforementioned giants, yet all but one are Davis originals. Backing Davis on much of Butt Naked Free are T-Bone Wolke (ex-Hall and Oates, ex-Saturday Night Live band) on bass, mandolin, accordion and organ; Levon Helm (ex-The Band) on drums and mandolin, and John Platania on guitar. Platania is best known for his work on Van Morrisonís Moondance album.

Last year Davis won a W.C. Handy Award for Keeping the Blues Alive for his title-role work in the off-Broadway production of Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil. He could win one this year for Butt Naked Free.

ó Dave Ranney

©2000 Blues Access, Boulder, Colorado, USA