Eisa Davis: 22 October 2014 - New York
On a rainy New York night, Obie Award winner Eisa Davis transformed Joe's Pub into the garden of Eisa.
There's a song on Eisa Davis' 2007 release Something Else that comes to mind when attending an Eisa Davis concert. It's the last track on the album, "I See My Beauty In You". Watching Davis reveal her soul through her songs, and also embody the souls of different characters, is like peeling back the petals of a rare flower. Her lyrics mirror the full gamut of love, relationships, and life experiences. By stripping emotions to their essence, then illuminating them in powerful stories, Davis provides a mirror for audience members to see their own beauty in her songs.
Joe's Pub is an ideal venue to absorb Davis' multi-faceted artistry. On a recent autumn evening, it was both a refuge from rain-soaked city sidewalks and the gateway to what could be called "the garden of Eisa". Accompanied by a three-piece band and two background singers, Davis shared an array of original material that spanned Something Else, her musical Flowers Are Sleeping, and recent compositions that might soon have a home in the studio. Davis' modes of expression encompass her work as an award-winning playwright, actress, and singer-songwriter. She called upon each of those talents throughout the evening. "Just note there’s a lot of schizophrenia that’s gonna happen," she told the audience. "I’m going to be playing different characters with different opinions that are not necessarily mine."
Davis opened with "Black Girl Bullet", one of several pieces she performed from Flowers Are Sleeping. Bassist John Murchison, drummer Sydney Driver, and guitarist Jon Spurney concocted a bluesy, rock-infused groove for the singer. Isolated from the context of the musical, which Symphony Space described as a "fantasy about the contemporary art world inspired by the artistic and intellectual leaders who peopled the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance," the song occupied a space all its own at Joe's Pub. Davis wryly juxtaposed society's perceptions of young black women -- "Do you sing? You gotta know how to sing. You got to be loud and proud" -- with issues of self-identity: "What do you do when you are something you can’t grasp? When your voice is just a rasp?" The band transitioned into a more musically understated but no less dramatic sequence wherein Davis' character sang, "I got a bullet on my heart, it’s pressing down on every part." It set the tone for an evening where Davis fearlessly confronted the complexities in everyday life.
"Don’t Know Nothing About the Blues" continued Davis' selections from Flowers Are Sleeping. "The only blues I got are my jeans and the sky", she sang in character, proceeding to name all the "blues" that reflect her experience -- everything but the music form itself. Her cleverly rhymed couplets illuminated the character's unique point of view as an artist, punctuated by a spoken aside: "Black women really can't sing anything close to the blues right now. Soul is, like, reserved only for white Brits." Upon the song's conclusion, Davis duly clarified, "I actually don’t believe that. That's the character in my musical who sings that."
Beginning with "Don’t Know Nothing About the Blues", Davis displayed her mastery of keys throughout the evening. Perched at the piano, she brought the audience into the mellifluous musical world of the title song to Flowers Are Sleeping. "I smell so much majesty, she's wafting right through me", she sang, caressing each word like silk. From the chord progressions to the vastness of Davis' vocals to the interplay between the piano and other instruments, "Flowers Are Sleeping" would not be out of place among the jazz-pop excursions that Joni Mitchell recorded with the L.A. Express during the mid-'70s. Backgrounds vocalists April Matthis and Shelley Thomas joined Davis on the closing refrain, "Beauty is nigh and I won't let it pass me by", further embellishing the beguiling tone of the melody.
"Has anyone here felt creatively blocked?" Davis asked the audience in her introduction to "What Will I Make", another song from Flowers Are Sleeping. "This song is about when you’re in that state and then the moment when you break through." She struck an engaging presence, deftly maneuvering the song's intricate rhythms underneath the verses. Matthis and Thomas signified the character's quest to break through the creative block with a kind of incantatory vocal stylization. "I'm breaking the seal", Davis continued singing while Driver's drumming churned the intensity of the tune. Continuing her showcase of Flowers Are Sleeping, she described the spirit behind "Anybody Could Be You" as "When your man or woman does not have the same love for you and they’re thinking they might want to upgrade." Even when "resentments accrue", Davis still finds a lilting beauty in the pain.
Davis ushered the show's second half into what she deemed "not the musical" with a song called "You're Everywhere". She'd composed the song shortly after her grandmother passed away. "When she passed, I almost felt closer to her," she explained. If a heart could sing, it would sound like Davis' performance of "You're Everywhere". She effectively translated the lyrics' personal sentiment to the audience, underscoring the universality of loss and the connections that remain even after a loved one's departure. "What you give away is yours. What you keep, you lose forever," sang Davis, one of many profound insights reflected in her writing.
Switching to acoustic guitar, Jon Spurney accompanied Davis on "Tres Cartas Postales", a dramatic canción that revealed the resplendent, bell-clear tones of Davis' voice. The singer hardly needed the microphone to amplify her approach to the material. She stood beside the piano, fully immersed in the story, her hands gesturing to some lover who has gone astray. It was an impassioned, triumphant performance that emphasized Davis' versatility to mesmerizing effect.
"Come On" and "Something Else" were not new to Joe's Pub. Back in March 2008, while Davis was appearing as Mother in Passing Strange at the Belasco Theater on Broadway, she performed selections from Something Else at the venerated downtown venue. On record and on stage, Davis imbues both songs with an appealing intimacy. A sense of yearning embroiders "Come On", a window to a private moment between Davis and a lover. Guest artist Shaina Taub then joined Thomas and Matthis for "Something Else". The three vocalists echoed Davis on a compelling declaration: "I am something else, something different, something that you have never seen. I won't be taken by the stream." Eisa Davis has many strengths but "Something Else" exhibited how singularly gifted she is as a singer-songwriter. When the song crests to a rousing, gospel-tinged denouement, "My roots will keep me free", there's no doubt that the words line the marrow of Davis' bones.
Davis resumed her tour through Flowers Are Sleeping with "We Didn't Know". She began the tune solo on piano before Driver, Spurning, and Murchison added their respective parts. "We didn’t know that love would go, but it sure took us for a ride. Then the sun turned into snow," Davis sang. It's a bittersweet story, tempered by the singer's assurances of "It's alright, baby." She explained, "When a song says 'It’s alright', you got to believe it."
"The Ballad of the Magical Negro" not only attested to Davis' brilliance as a writer and storyteller but offered a clear-eyed view about the dynamics of race. She prefaced the piece by sharing how, as a young black girl attending a predominantly white school, her (white) classmates had little regard for her beyond someone who could write stories, sing, and dance. "I'm gonna make their lives amazing but who the fuck cares about mine?" she said. "This song is kind of dipping into that question." Indeed, the autobiographical foundation of "The Ballad of the Magical Negro" prompts a searing critique about the ways black lives "play back-up to the characters with dimensional back stories". In the song, she explains how "It always costs something to keep me around. I've appreciated a little bit since Elvis and his hound. My value is exponential. I have no desires, except to please you." That kind of "value" is paradoxically compounded by always being a target. "Hands up", Davis said, assuming a frozen stop-and-frisk pose. "How magical can negroes be, if we can't stay alive? What a difference a bullet makes, when you're trying to survive." The piece was utterly breathtaking, with the emotional thrust of Davis' performance lingering long after the lights dimmed.
After an extended ovation for "The Ballad of the Magical Negro", the audience welcomed Davis back to the stage for a two-song encore, "Maintenance Man" -- another soulful rocker -- and "Tired Morning Eyes". The latter was first immortalized by Darius de Haas in Davis' production of Flowers Are Sleeping at Symphony Space. In her own rendition, Davis gave the song another life. It extended beyond the dramatic structure of Flowers' story line and, in a way, encapsulated many of the places Davis had taken the audience over the course of the evening. "Will you love it every morning? Will you love it each and every morning?" she sang. The music slowly faded as Davis, Taub, Matthis, and Thomas repeated those two lines a cappella, inspiring audience members to ask those questions of themselves. However, one particular impression from the evening needn't be questioned at all: in everything Eisa Davis does, love is always there.
All photos by Christian John Wikane.