A tight musical structure itself was considered uncool when being free was the highest value. The 19 tracks on this anthology embody this type of loose approach.
It doesn’t take long for the music on the newly released collection of Jesse Ed Davis’ Red Dirt Boogie - The Atco Recordings 1970-1972 for things to break down into chaotic party noises. In fact, this happens about halfway through the first song, “Every Night Is Saturday Night”. Before the track is over, it sounds like everyone in the band is banging away separately at their instruments and lost somewhere inside their own head. Being out of control can be a worthy goal. It allows one to explore and share. Back in the early '70s, this pandemonium was the hallmark of a good jam.
A tight musical structure itself was considered uncool when being free was the highest value. The 19-tracks on this anthology embody this type of loose approach. The tunes are ragged and shaggy, but that doesn’t mean the players can’t play. Indeed, the opposite is true. It’s because the musicians are so good that they can let things flow and turn the seemingly shapeless melodies into supple riffs that twist and turn.
Guitarist Davis was the consummate sideman of this era because of his ability to boogie without dropping a beat and always finding his way back to the heart of a song. That’s why former Beatles’ John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison all hired him to perform on their individual projects. That’s him playing lead on Jackson Browne’s first hit, “Doctor My Eyes”, on Leonard Cohen’s Phil Spector produced Death of a Ladies Man, Gene Clark’s classic White Light and too many other notable records to mention. Before these Atco recordings, Davis was best-known for his role in Taj Mahal’s band. On these recordings Davis himself is backed up by notables such as Eric Clapton, Gram Parsons, and Leon Russell.
Davis’ two Atco albums received good press but poor sales during their original issue dates and have been out of print for many years. Seventeen out of the 19 tracks (and two alternate takes) appear here in newly remastered form. While the music itself is purposely unkempt, the sound is clear and crisp. On cuts such as Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever”, Davis’ original “Reno Street Incident” and George Harrison’s “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” (recorded before Harrison did), Davis’ guitar rings out strong and sharp with an accusatory edge. He lashes the strings the way a whip master cracks his cat-o’-nine-tails.
However, Davis always sounds friendly. His voice remains conversational. Even when he’s singing about the mistreatment of Native Americans on “Alcatraz”, Davis sounds centered. Sure, he is pissed by the hypocrisy and mendacity he observes, but he offers wisdom more than anger. The guitar itself conveys the rage. There’s nothing words can say that a good lick can’t say better.
As tracks such as “Washita Love Child”, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Gypsies”, and “Farther on Down the Road” show, Davis uses introspection to discover what gives him pleasure. He reflects to move forward. Consequently, the songs still hold up well after all these years. There has been recent attention paid to Davis thanks to the new documentary film Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. Davis, who died of a drug overdose at age 43 in 1988, certainly merits renewed consideration.