Jesse Ed Davis
Red Dirt Boogie —The Atco Recordings 1970-1972
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
One downside the digitizing of music has created is the lack of liner notes that listeners typically don’t get with their music. That has unfortunately resulted in a lack of knowledge about the producers, engineers and backing musicians supporting the stars whose names are out front.
Before the era of downloads made cover art and studio personnel listings somewhat of an afterthought, music fans would scour notes and players on albums, seeing some names appear often and raising their chances of someday being the featured performer. That’s the case with Jesse Ed Davis.
Native American Davis started his career backing Taj Mahal, then left to became a hired gun, supporting such superstars as Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr and perhaps most famously John Lennon on whose Walls and Bridges album he played most of the solos. But like most supporting musicians, Davis — who passed in 1988 due to a drug overdose in 1988 — wanted more of the spotlight.
He got his chance when Eric Clapton suggested he try his hand at being a frontman. The result was a three album catalog. The first two of those for the titular label, long out of print, are collected here.
At first blush, there isn’t much going on. Davis’ voice is ordinary at best, and that might be overly generous. It’s somewhere between Dr. John and Leon Russell, both of whom are part of the 36 (!) musicians who contribute to these sessions. Davis generally talks/sings without much range or emotion. And for someone known as a guitar wiz, he plays few solos, preferring to let his lines weave into a muddy mix that screams 70s. Musically this falls on the swampy side of the Band, perhaps a low-rent version of that group, without its great songwriting, vision or personality. Not surprisingly he covers their “Strawberry Wine” in a slowed down, droopy take that feels like he and his backing musicians might have imbibed too much of the title beverage before recording. And originals like the very 70s touchy-feely “Golden Sun Goddess” and the clichéd “Rock and Roll Gypsies” just feel underwritten and, fronted by Davis’ weak voice, half baked.
But about halfway into this generous 75 minute compilation, you start to warm up to the spontaneous, laid back, communal style. Covers of George Harrison’s “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” (released before Harrison’s own version), Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” and Russell’s “Alcatraz” capture the loosey-goosey spirit that drenches these performances with better material to work with. On the occasional original like “You Belladonna You” where Davis stretches out into a funky vibe, he shows the potential for what could have been if everyone involved had put a little more time and effort into this.
There remains a shared simplicity and long lost warmth to these sessions. Dated? Sure, but undeniably charming with a sense these albums could never be cut at any other time.
Credit the Real Gone label for excavating these once missing sides. Even if this is far from “lost classic” territory, there’s a genuine, organic approach to the music that grows on the listener once you get into the groove. Keep expectations low and it’s likely the music will transport you back in time to a patchouli scented room with friends, lava lamps and lots of contraband.
And you won’t miss the guitar solos.