Artist: Reverend Gary Davis
Catalog No.: DOCD 32-20-14
In Reverend Gary Davis we had one of the best examples of a musician who carefully navigated the terrain between sacred and secular musics, causing intersections not often heard. In the newly released Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964 from Document Records, we hear Davis performing as part of the “Gospel and Blues Caravan” touring throughout Europe, on a night that captures an excellent showman in top form.
Though the image of a blind guitar player adheres more to blues mythology than gospel, Davis performs four gospel songs on his trademark Gibson Jumbo-200 with natural ease, as if they were intended for the acoustic guitar. One of his trademark songs, “If I Had My Way,” finds Davis shouting his praise while his tremendous finger picking runs up and down the fretboard, oscillating between stellar bass runs and high register licks responding to his vocal lines. “The Sun is Going Down” brings Davis’s long time friend Sonny Terry along on harmonica, and the two sound majestic together, every bit as tight as Terry’s work with Brownie McGhee. Equally impressive is Davis’s “Coon Hunt,” a harmonica instrumental based on Terry’s “Fox Chase,” which gives further evidence of Davis’s wide and varied musical ability.
To cap things off, Davis ends with Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” showcasing his ragtime finger picking chops. Davis complicates the standard repertoire of a bluesman, moving not only between sacred and secular songs, but also with a double dose of ragtime in “Maple Leaf Rag,” and the impressive instrumental “Cincinnati Flow Rag.” According to the liner notes penned by Bob Grooms, Davis also excelled at the piano and banjo, and based on the virtuosic display heard here, one longs to hear what he might have had to offer on those instruments.
The few drawbacks of the album have nothing to do with Davis, but with the remastering of the tracks, which are inexplicably inconsistent. Some sound intimate and clear while others sound like bootlegs made from the audience. The loud applause in between takes is disruptive in its length and volume. This is surprising from Document, which generally excels at remastering historical material. The liner notes are adequate but mostly a song-by-song explication as to where each fits within Davis’s larger performing repertoire, as well as some general history as to Davis’s activities in Europe in the 1960s. The photos are minimal and offer only two shots of Davis backstage, so one never gets a visual sense of Manchester Free Trade Hall. Nonetheless, none of this undermines the astounding performance given that May night in 1964, where it became quite obvious that American blues and gospel had become transnational musics.
Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson