Debbie Davies holds her own with the big boys of blues

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 5, 2001

When I hear the name Jay Geils nowadays, I remember how I used to whip over to an old Chilliwack High School buddy’s house at lunch hour for a quick fix of tuna on toast and the latest ’70s rock sounds. Sometimes it was Foghat’s Energized blasting from his tinny Sears stereo, other times Deep Purple’s Made in Japan. But most often it was the J. Geils Band’s Live—Full House. We may have been insecure, adolescent twerps, but when the Boston boogiemen put the rejuvenating boots to blues standards, we were “hard-driving men” in our minds.

Apart from a couple of poppy hits in the early ’80s, not much has been heard from Jay Geils in the last 25 years or so, but the guitarist’s name does show up on the new CD by New York–based blueswoman Debbie Davies, Love the Game. He offers up a subtle but tasty slide solo on “Worst Kinda Man”.

“I’ve known Jay for a while,” reports Davies from a tour stop in Lincoln, Nebraska. “I just know all these guys because we’re all playin’ the same stuff and crossing paths. He’s got a band called Bluestime, and we actually did a Caribbean blues cruise with them, and got to jam. It was really fun.”

From the sound of things, serious jollies were also had during the recording of Davies’s latest disc, which sees the fiery, 48-year-old picker in the string-bending company of her former flame Coco Montoya (ex John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers) and blues icon Duke Robillard. The three of them really go to town on the aptly titled “Fired Up”, an instrumental tour de force that makes it clear Davies can hold her own with the big boys when it comes to the essential three Ts: taste, tone, and technique. It’s no wonder that she’s just finished recording an instructional guitar tape for Arlen Roth’s Hot Licks video series. And her immense talent wasn’t lost on Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton—Stevie Ray Vaughan’s famed rhythm section, Double Trouble—who were all over Davies’s 1999 release, Tales From the Austin Motel.

“That was a relationship that I had nurtured from my days with Albert Collins,” notes Davies, who spent three years performing with the Master of the Telecaster before he succumbed to cancer in ’93. “We did a lotta shows with Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, so I knew all those guys. We had actually done a tribute after Stevie’s death at one of the House of Blues, and I had jammed with Double Trouble, and I just remembered how much I loved them as a rhythm section. It had been like one of those things that’s in your head for a while, and then you can finally make it happen.”

While Tales included cover versions of three Willie Dixon tunes, as well as Deadric Malone’s deathless “As the Years Go Passing By”, Love the Game forgoes proven blues standards in favour of tunes penned mostly by Davies and drummer Don Castagno, whom she’ll perform with—in the company of bassist Alan Hager—at the Yale on Sunday (April 8).

“This CD was just like a total in-house project,” she says, “where I really wanted to involve my band completely, because they were such good sports to let me do the other CD with Double Trouble. They didn’t give me any hassle about that. So this time we went in and just said, ‘Alright, we’re gonna go for it, we’re gonna write all the songs and we’re gonna play on everything together.’ And I’ll tell you what, it’s really made a difference in our live shows.”

When asked if she’s been blown away by any other female blues artists lately, Davies points to relative newcomer Susan Tedeschi (“She’s like a little sister”) and also gives a nod to veteran slide-guitar specialist Bonnie Raitt. But her biggest influence on guitar, by far, has been Eric Clapton.

“I first heard Eric Clapton when he was playin’ with John Mayall,” she relates, “and then later on Cream was a big deal to me. Even when I was real little, when I wasn’t even playing yet, I would just memorize the Clapton solos by ear, and I would sing ’em all. But the cool thing with Eric was, I’d read articles about him and he would always cite all the black American blues players as his influence, so he and John Mayall really taught us young white kids about our own country’s music. Like a lotta people my age, we kinda worked backwards to the real blues from the British blues.”

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