While Taj Mahal, Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart have mostly evolved out of their Delta-driven early careers, Guy Davis abides uniquely among prominent black musicians in the tradition of acoustic blues. He covers the guitar and harmonica forefathers, but creates original material that lays that pattern over the fabric of contemporary life.
On Friday, his sassy, double-entendre-laden original "The Chocolate Man" fit neatly into the mold of Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Coochie Man." "Did You See My Baby?" which Davis introduced as a tribute to Sonny Terry, effectively evoked Terry's otherworldly command of the harmonica, with the train chugs, whoops and whole-body performance intact. He showed his range with a spellbinding interpretation of Bob Dylan's "Sweetheart Like You."
Davis wrapped his songs in unselfconscious tales from a sophisticated, globe-hopping, technology-savvy life. He doesn't apologize for his New York City upbringing and privileged youth as the son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. But he was clearly grounded from an early age in his ancestors' tales of hardship and his father's commitment to social justice. His stories had the shapes and cadences of pre-radio storytelling.
The most engrossing of these stories on Friday was his tale of smuggling his guitar into the intensive-care unit to play and sing for Odetta in her final days. His description of medical trappings led the audience to surreal silence, as many no doubt imagined the environment surrounding their congresswoman at that moment, but Davis' story had a triumphant end in the power of music.
His tale about the music industry's betrayal of Blind Willie McTell and his last days playing for tips in parking lots held similar sway, but Davis' story of a recent experience in a bar in Edinburgh, Scotland, was one of many in which he brought laughs from the crowd.
Davis' appearance coincided with the Seventh Annual Santa Cruz Valley Border Issues Fair at the church, and he said he came to learn about the lives of border-crossers. Opener and local activist Ted Warmbrand movingly performed his English/Spanish "Who's the Criminal?" composed to honor two Samaritans who were tried and eventually acquitted for their work. Davis called Warmbrand "the Pete Seeger of Tucson," and picking up their banjos, they closed out the night together with "Shortnin' Bread."