Reviews of Jeff Davis Performances and CDs
Some Fabulous Yonder: Jeff is one of the most charismatic and widely-regarded of American oldtime-folk revival performers, possessing that maddeningly enviable trait of being master of several different instruments (on this disc we hear just banjo, fiddle, mandocello and guitar) as well being a darned fine singer, a man of wholly unpretentious and completely natural musicianship who all the while makes everything he does seem totally effortless. (Bit like Bruce Molsky in that respect!...)
Jeff's pedigree is long and distinguished: he worked in a duo partnership with Jeff Warner for many years, while more recently he contributed two excellent tracks to Martyn Wyndham-Read's Songlinks 2 project back in 2005. And yet this solo CD has been a long time a-comin' - tho' it sure is worth the wait! It's a healthy mix of songs and tunes taken from the tradition, originating from all over the States and notably including examples from the Frank Warner collection; and yet Jeff readily admits he's no purist, and goes about adapting his material with considerable ingenuity and a thoroughly infectious excitement.
Basically, the tradition's in his blood, as is the rare ability to communicate its music with a keen sense of discovery, that eagerness to share a new song or tune with his listeners. Although it was Frank Warner whose singing of Tom Dooley “in the old style of the old singers” formed Jeff's original “Damascus” experience and Frank has subsequently proved an all-pervasive influence on Jeff's own music-making, everything Jeff does seems also to be infused with an evangelical zeal, much in the spirit of Alan Lomax and his collecting activity you might say. (Jeff's intriguing performance of Beulah Land on this CD is a kind of homage to Lomax, even attempting to loosely re-create a noted Lomax recording from his Southern Journey, which was itself an intended re-creation of the sound of a slave-era African-American band...)
This enthusiasm extends from Jeff's own performing style (both timeless and evocative in the very truest manner) into his way of penning liner notes (those for this particular CD are, significantly, brilliantly well-researched, erudite and copious almost to the point of telling us way more than we might wish to know - tho' hey, I've not got a problem with that!); it's no exaggeration to say that Jeff's understanding and knowledge of this repertoire is second to none. His own instrumental versatility (along with an entirely apposite, and selective, choice of just four guest musicians, principally the redoubtable Brian Peters) enables him to ring the changes with a different complement and sound on virtually every track, and there's no shortage of marvellous attention to detail within the sparse but telling arrangements he employs.
The material itself cuts across all borders and ranges unashamedly right across the tradition, from straight folk tales (The Bold Privateer) and epic historical ballads (Cumberland And The Merrimac), to quirky obscurities like Felix The Soldier and cowboy songs, via a powerful piece of reportage (Libby Prison, one of two songs here that Jeff sings unaccompanied); there's also a couple of instrumental tracks providing good ol' down-home fun with great technique but no need of being showy. Even the most ostensibly well-worn of the songs (like Wild Bill Jones and Shortening Bread) emerge from the Jeff Davis stable fresh as new paint (as indeed does Old Paint here!). Adieu My Lovely Nancy is a particular success, taking as its primary source the Bertha Lauderdale version rather than the more usual Copper Family one and benefiting from the unusual combination of mandocello and anglo-concertina for accompaniment. In Jeff's talented hands, the music of his (our) heritage is so vividly brought to life: the land of deep tradition is some fabulous yonder, indeed, and a grand place to visit.
- David Kidman, NetRhythms, January 2008
Some Fabulous Yonder: "Hurrah! - just the sort of recording that I like to hunker down with – performances that captivate from the off, allied to an erudite and comprehensive, nay, encyclopaedic booklet containing historic photographs and notes on the songs and their sources, entirely traditional in nature. Hearing Tom Dooley - I’d guess from the Kingston Trio’s 1958 hit, a pivotal diversion from piano lessons - provided a Damascene flash for the young Davis. (“Suddenly I wanted to play the banjo”) When by some twist of fate, Frank Warner who had noted the song from Frank Proffitt in North Carolina, came to his school to talk about rural collecting experiences, “I was floored” he says. A life-long friendship with the Warner family and their sons, Jeff and Gerret resulted, fuelling a consuming passion for American old-time music.
Jeff’s uncluttered vocals, whether a capella or backed up by his impressive playing on banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandocello, have understated backwoods ambience, referencing a front-porch, quintessential America. The wide sweep of material presented, from gospel hymns to Civil War songs by turns offers up comfort (‘Beulah Land’) and sets out warnings (‘Wild Bill Jones’) whilst glorious variants of ‘Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy’ and ‘The Bold Privateer’ evince the Atlantic crossings made by some familiar English songs. Add a cowboy and frontier element with a side order of ‘Shortening Bread’ and you have an honest album that brims over with eloquence and inspiration."
- Clive Pownceby
Some Fabulous Yonder: "This is a great CD. I'm sorry to have only very rarely seen Jeff Davis live, so this begins to make up for this lack. And the record starts in a splendid way, with the best performance of River Driving I've ever heard. This is a terrific song, and I can't imagine it being sung much better than this.
Track 2 is an instrumental, Indian Whoop, which comes from the manuscripts of Willian Sidney Mount, the painter. Although he left some source notes, this tune wasn't mentioned - so it's not known where it came from. It certainly doesn't sound, to me, as if it derives from Native American music. Jeff plays fiddle, ably assisted by Howie Bursen on banjo; The booklet seems to indicate that Brian Peters plays melodeon on it too - but I can't hear it.
Track 3, Doney Gal, came to Jeff, when he was only 18, from Alan Lomax, who he heard sing it one afternoon at the home of Frank and Jean Warner. It's a cowboy song and, referring to the current wisdom at that time, Jeff describes it as 'the best tawdry, cheap and unworthy song I've ever heard." This would be a good point to mention the quality of the writing in the booklet: depite being only 24 pages in length, it manages to fit in seven atmospheric photos and a vast amount of information about the songs and their singers. The writing is clear, personal and often amusing - at the end of reading it, I really want to meet the man ... apart from the superb singing and playing, he seems such a nice and interesting human being.
A quite extraordinary aspect of the CD is sheer breadth of types of song to be found here. The 4th track is Beulah Land, played as a sort of reconstruction of what a slave-era African American band might have sounded like. Track 5 is Adieu My Lovely Nancy, in a vesion Julie Hennegan sings from Arkansas - much different from the Coppers' well-known version. Libby Prison is a Civil War song, as is the splendid Cumberland and the Merrimac; The Bold Privateer is an English song Sharp collected from Mary Gross, in the Peaks of Otter, Virginia.
Felix the Soldier seems to be an original American version of the story behing the Irish Mrs McGrath. Cowboy's Life is just what it says, and is wonderfully sung here in much the same style as it was recorded by Sloan Matthews, of Alpine, Texas. I was hoping that the next track, Old Paint, would be the wonderful version from Jesse Morris; it isn't - but it's none the worse for that, and is, at least comprehensible! It contains the lovely line 'Old Bill Jones had two daughters and a song', so it's not entirely unexpected when the following track should be Frank Proffitt's Wild Bill Jones.
Mount's Untitled Jig/Setauket are two more selections from the Mount manuscripts, the latter may well have been composed by 'Black Tony' Clapp, a slave owned by Mount's mother's family, and 'resident fiddler' for the Long Island village of Setauket. We end with Shortening Bread which, despite being known by almost everyone in the US, black or white, is of completely unknown origin.
This is a wonderful record, and its booklet should be an inspiration to us all. "
- Rod Stradling, 02/05/2008
"When Jeff Davis sings the repertoire of the Appalachian Mountains, he cuts through decades and across borders, sitting us right down in the dirt in front of a weather-beaten shack, at the feet of a hillbilly singer. He combines authenticity and art in a rare way." So said the Chronicle Herald of Nova Scotia, summing up what makes Davis pretty well unique amongst American folk revival performers. Jeff is one of those musicians who makes everything look easy. He plays dazzling old-time fiddle, is master of frailing banjo in several different styles, and is just as good on guitar, mandolin or mandocello, without ever striving too hard for showy licks or empty virtuosity. His singing, based on long immersion in the styles of the old singers - and sometimes friendship with them - is truly timeless, conjuring vividly the world of the cowboy or the Civil War soldier. Jeff Davis has an unusual and refreshing repertoire that includes songs and music from New England and the West, as well as the more common Southern mountain material. Admirers of his musicianship and singing range from Bruce Molsky in America to the late Peter Bellamy in England, while cutting-edge folk maverick Tim Eriksen cites him as an important mentor and influence. He has also worked regularly with cowboy singer Skip Gorman. In 2005 Jeff contributed two memorable tracks to the "Songlinks" album of transatlantic song migrants, and was one of the hits of the launch concert in London. He will be releasing a solo CD in 2006. For a number of years Jeff Davis worked with Jeff Warner in a partnership described by the American magazine Dirty Linen as "one of the best old-time duos to be found in this whole country". Davis and Warner toured the UK twice in the mid-1990s, playing festivals including Towersey, Fylde, Chippenham and Cleethorpes, and some of England's best folk clubs, but since then Davis has made only rare solo visits. He has, however, built up a devoted following, and no fan of old-time music or real traditional singing should miss him."
- Chronicle Herald of Nova Scotia
“One of the outstanding performers of the American folk revival.... Jeff has a lovely lived-in voice and he ranges widely through the many strands that make up the American tradition whilst providing exquisite accompaniments on banjo, mandocello, and guitar…. one of the finest old-time fiddle players”
“A fine interpreter of traditional song”
Sing Out! (USA)
“Whether singing or playing, Jeff Davis' work oozes class and commitment …. He has deep understanding and love of his material and lets those qualities show through in performance”
The Living Tradition (UK)
"Jeff Davis is one of those musicians who makes everything look easy. He plays superb old-time fiddle, is a master of clawhammer banjo and just as good on guitar, mandolin or mandocello, without ever striving too hard for showy licks or empty virtuosity. His singing, based on long immersion in the styles of the old singers is truly timeless, conjuring vividly the world of the cowboy or the Civil War soldier. ...Jeff has an unusual and refreshing repertoire that includes songs and music from New England and the American West, as well as the more common Southern mountain material. His performances range from Appalachian ballads to Long Island fiddle tunes, songs of the civil war to African-American-style banjo-picking."
- Harbortown Records
“one of the best old-time duos to be found in this whole country”
- Dirty Linen, U.S. on Album WIlder Joy
"With selections collected from "source singers" who remember the tunes sung by generations before them, Davis will tell how the music was found, who the musicians were and what the songs meant to them."
- The Woodstock Villager