Eric Davis does not look like the stereotypical bluesman. His muscular frame is typically adorned in fitted tanks or vests, and his shaved head is always covered with his trademark bandanna. His arms are emblazoned with tattoos and his face with a goatee. He plays mostly original, rockin’ blues tunes, eschewing tired classics and standbys. “Guitar” Davis is not your mama’s bluesman, and that’s just the way he likes it.
Appearing: 4/6 at B.L.U.E.S. (2519 N. Halsted) in Chicago.
“I’m not trying to look like a bluesman; [blues is] what I play. I dress how I feel,” he explains. “The blues has always been in my heart, my approach is just different.”
That approach includes an energetic, playful stage presence and riveting guitar skills. Backed by The Troublemakers, Davis offers unexpected performances that meld blues with rock, funk, and R&B, topped with lots of fun. He’s been called the new era of the blues, and at just 40-years old — weaned on hip-hop as well as blues — he certainly represents a new generation.
As the son of noted drummer Bobby “Top Hat” Davis, a fixture in Chicago since the ’50s, one expects that his son would follow in the prescribed tradition.
Eric had other ideas. “I never thought I’d be a musician like my dad,” he says, despite playing behind Buddy Guy and filming a commercial with B.B. King before he was 12. Growing up in Bronzeville, he witnessed the masters in legendary clubs during his father’s gigs. “When I was little, I’d ask my father to take me to The Checkerboard or Theresa’s,” he says. “I’d watch Buddy Guy and Lefty Dizz perform. I didn’t know they were famous, I just liked what they did. Lefty would walk out into the crowd playing and Buddy would walk outside. I was in awe, watching them.”
He started playing the drums at 5, and by 10 he was good enough to play guest spots with his father. He never considered it his life’s calling, just something he could do. He played behind Junior Wells and Tyrone Davis, honing his skills until a bassist called Flash caught his attention one day. “I was hangin’ out at The Checkerboard after school, and I liked how Flash played the bass so I asked him to teach me. Buddy Guy came all the way from behind the bar and said, ‘Boy, you don’t want to play no bass. You want to play the guitar — that’s how you get all the girls.’ When he showed me that chord on his Fender guitar, that was it. I thought it was so easy. I was into the guitar after that.”
Davis was also into the streets. “I wanted to be on the streets. I was bad in school and the more shows my dad was away playing, the looser I got. I was running the streets with gangs, without any direction,” he says. He maneuvered his way into the position of high-ranking leader, but “even when I was gang bangin’ I’d go to the clubs to listen to the blues,” he says. “I was still too young to get in, so I’d listen outside or go to Maxwell Street.”
The turning point came when he was 19 and a good friend died. “He was like a father to me, he gave me my first job. Once he died, it made me more responsible. I worked at the hospital for seven years. I picked my guitar back up and started practicing.” He also started going to blues clubs every night of the week, often leaving to head straight to his 6 a.m. job “for four years straight. I went to the clubs every night to watch what people were doing and what they weren’t doing,” he says. “I don’t want to play ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ or ‘Down Home Blues’ or ‘Stormy Monday.’ I want to play other stuff and make it my own. You have to have fun with the blues. Everybody doesn’t want to hear just one kind of blues.”
That point is illustrated brilliantly on Trouble Makin’ Man (Young Blues). The album supplies an engaging mix of influences while still upholding the core mantle. Even more impressive, nine of the 10 tracks are original, plus an exceptional interpretation of Jimmy Burns’ “No Consideration,” complete with melodic chorus and R&B flavor. Highlights include the charging title track; “You’re Goin Down,” a mellow ballad with Latin undertones; “Days Of My Life,” a smooth blues burner; and “Pussy Cat,” the mistreated man’s anthem simmering with resentment and evocative verses.
After releasing his second album and playing several European tours, Davis is still surprised at his life as a musician. “I’ve been overseas four times in the last three years. I never thought I’d leave this country when I was on the streets,” he says. “My destiny was to be dead, strung out on drugs, or in the penitentiary. But the blues was always in me, it was just about how to get it out and when to get it out.”
Now that he’s getting the blues out, establishing his own sound has been key. Besides his influences of Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and B.B. King, Davis retains his street influence as well. “My rhythm and beats are influenced by hip-hop. My rhythm is on the upbeat, not the downbeat. It’s new school.”
Registration is open for the biannual Blues & The Spirit Symposium at Dominican University in River Forest. This year’s focus is on race and gender, and the events are set for May 18th and 19th, featuring panel discussions on the current state of the blues, “the lived experience of Chicago’s blues divas, cultural tourism, and blues and the intersection of blues and hip-hop.” Registration is $75 and limited. Visit www.dom.edu/blues or call (708) 524-6771.
“Chicago Blues: An Urban Experience,” curated by Barry Dolins, kicks off at the Old Town School Of Folk Music on April 29th with a celebration of Little Walter’s Birthday featuring Billy Branch & The Sons Of The Blues. The series continues every month through June featuring Frutland Jackson, Demetria Taylor, Sharon Lewis, and Theo Huff.
Finally, I’d like to share with a picture from Sugar Blue’s February 16th wedding at the Blues Foundation (reception was at Rosa’s). Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Blue!
– Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
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