New-York-based blues musician Guy Davis showed Juneau audiences the full range of emotion of acoustic blues Thursday night, with a 45-minute set that showcased the genre's roots in both traditional songs and Davis' original compositions.
Armed with a 6-string, a 12-string, a banjo and a harmonica, Davis led the standing room only crowd at the Alaska Folk Festival through songs about loneliness and joy, tapping into the rich subtext beneath the notes and lyrics, and sharing his deep personal connection to the music.
"I thought he was incredible," said local musician Buddy Tabor. "There wasn't anything I didn't like. I just thought it was most excellent."
"He was brilliant, just absolutely brilliant," agreed Grace Ellliot, who has hosted a blues radio show for KTOO and KRNN for the past 17 years. She dedicated her show this week to Davis and his influences, including Mance Lipscomb, Buddy Guy and Mississippi John Hurt.
"I personally can die happy now," she said after listening to Davis' performance.
Both Tabor and Elliot said that his combination of traditional blues and original songs was one of the things they appreciated most.
Davis' intimate connection to the blues began when he was a child, but he wasn't raised with the music. His parents, famous actors and civil rights activists Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis, didn't really listen to the blues, he said in an interview earlier this week. Instead, he heard Harry Belafonte albums, some jazz including John Coltraine and the radio. But they were a family of storytellers, especially his grandmother, and listening to his elders share their history set the groundwork for Davis' future appreciation and love of music.
"My grandmother wasn't so much interested in the blues herself, except she was what I would consider a blues person," Davis said. "She and my granddad were blues people. They grew up trying to do right, trying to keep the family together, going to church and that kind of stuff. These are the people that the blues came up out of."
His first exposure to the music itself came from a group of white college boys.
"I was probably somewhere between 7 and 10 years old. I didn't know whose music it was for sure. It did sound familiar, but I didn't know specifically at the time I heard it about the black man's connection to it, as far as the race or culture was concerned. But it did feel like it was different, it was identifiable."
Around the same time, he was sent to summer camp in Vermont, Camp Killooleet run by Pete Seeger's brother, John, where he picked up the banjo. He soon added the acoustic guitar and later the harmonica. As he learned more about the blues, following the works of Taj Mahal and others, he incorporated the stories he'd heard from his family, enriching his experience with the music.
Davis has released more than a dozen albums, featuring blues classics such as Big Joe Williams' "Baby Please Don't Go" and Leadbelly's "Follow Me Down."
He said when he's performing a traditional blues number, he gives it his own spin while remaining true to the song.
"I feel as a performer, you've got to play it that way, at that time, in that moment, with that audience," he said. "And at the same time, you are talking a piece of art out of its case, showcasing it, hopefully beautifully, as best you can."
Davis' own compositions are modeled after traditional acoustic blues numbers.
Davis is also an actor and a writer. His roles have included a doctor on the TV soap "One Life to Live," the Harry Belafonte-produced 1984 movie on breakdancing, "Beat Street," the Broadway musical "Mulebone," which featured the music of Taj Mahal, and off-Broadway production "Robert Johnson: trick the devil."
Alaska Folk Festival president Greg McLaughlin said that Guy Davis is only the second blues musician the folk fest has hosted; the first was John Cephas & Phil Wiggins in 1991.
For any blues fans or others that missed Davis' performance, there will be one more chance to listen to him play at 9 p.m. Sunday at Centennial Hall.