Title: Last Man Standing
Artist: Cedell Davis
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: February 24, 2015
At 88 years of age, Cedell Davis has still got it. Over his many decades as a blues journeyman, he’s seen his career fluctuate—from regional success in his early years, to obscurity through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s—and finally reinvigorated with the rise of the Fat Possum roster of North Mississippi heavy-hitters. After polio rendered his hands inflexible at the age of 10, Cedell developed an unorthodox method of playing slide guitar using a butter knife clenched between gnarled fingers, creating a raw style that captivated fans and critics alike. With Cedell’s unmistakable guitar technique it’s easy to forget his vocal chops, which take center stage on his latest release, Last Man Standing, on Sunyata Records.
Following a stroke and approaching 90-years-old, Cedell can no longer play guitar. Instead, we find Cedell providing vocals, leaving all instrumental work in the hands of much younger musicians, led by Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Jimbo Mathus. Mathus and his cohorts put together a hard hitting 16 tracks of rugged blues recorded live in Water Valley, MS. The holistic live approach means that these tracks bare their imperfections proudly, capturing the spirit of the juke joints and house parties in which these songs were born. Unfortunately it also exposes some of the heavy handedness in the group’s playing. The band feels clunky at times, with drumming that sounds more Led Zeppelin than Leadbelly. When the intensity is dialed back a bit, however, the crew settles into a more organic groove and uncover a fresh but familiar home for Cedell’s weathered growl.
On “Teenie Weenie Bit,” a slinky samba is accented with organ stabs as Cedell wails—the head nod is instantaneous. “Turn Your Light On,” another highlight, throttles forward with a sense of urgency and a sense of swagger that would make Dan Auerbach drool. Perhaps the most interesting additions to Cedell’s catalog are his “story-songs.” These short autobiographical interludes are accompanied by sparse instrumental musings, wandering along as Cedell tells of his origins in Mississippi. He speaks of living with Washboard Pete and Doctor Ross The Harmonica Boss and listening to the powerful sounds of Charley Patton on a wind up gramophone. He recounts humorously his experiences with Sonny Boy Williamson, depicting him as a bit of a grifter, a “natural born thief” known to steal people’s money after they went to sleep.
These are brief glimpses into a life that has seen some of the greatest contributors to American music. They recall so many Library of Congress sessions where the artist’s tales are just as valuable as any notes played. Cedell Davis is one of the last of a legendary generation of bluesmen and Last Man Standing provides another fun chapter in a fantastic career that deep blues fans are sure to enjoy.
Reviewed by Aaron Frazier