He can’t shred like Eddie Van Halen or fingerpick like Chet Atkins, but Delta bluesman CeDell Davis’ guitar technique is just as pioneering. Determined to play after his right hand was stricken with polio as a 10-year-old living in Helena, Ark., Davis bought a right-handed guitar and flipped it, the way Jimi Hendrix later made famous. Davis clawed the strings with two fingers on his left hand while using his right to wield one of his mother’s butter knives as a makeshift slide, fretting the strings over the top of the neck. The technique is a marvel to witness, creating the shrillness of metal on metal—slightly out-of-tune at times, but a fitting aesthetic for his gritty brand of Delta blues.
Now 89, Davis is no longer able to play guitar due to a 2005 stroke. But he can still sing, which he’s been doing in concert as often as possible thanks to a supportive group of musicians—including Barrett Martin, drummer for Ellensburg grunge stars Screaming Trees, who played on Davis’ last two albums and released them on his own Sunyata Records label.
Martin met Davis in 2001 via producer Joe Cripps, who asked him to help assemble a band for Davis’ LP When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine. Martin’s group Tuatara, which also features R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, seemed like a logical choice since they’d backed up other singer/songwriters.
The group recorded the album in a bar in Denton, Texas, that was closed during the day but open to customers at night, providing a unique mix of live energy and studio polish. “It’s Delta blues,” says Martin, “so it’s a little bit raunchy. It has this deep-pocket groove that makes people dance. Part of the charm of that style is that it can sound a little raucous, like you’re in a juke joint.”
Martin was also a part of Davis’ just-released Last Man Standing, produced by Squirrel Nut Zippers singer/guitarist Jimbo Mathis, who also grew up in the South and who played in Buddy Guy’s band in the early 2000s. “I was surprised to see Jimbo playing with a knife on my new record,” Davis said. “It sounds pretty good.”
Davis’ upcoming Crocodile show, which was put together by Martin, will feature a bevy of local heavyweights, including Buck, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Van Conner of Screaming Trees, Scott McCaughey of The Minus Five, and rising singer/guitarist Ayron Jones.
The assembled rockers will have to contend with a different playing style than they’re used to. “I had to teach my band how to play my songs right. They was mainly rock ’n’ roll when I first started with them, now they play CeDell Davis blues,” Davis says with a laugh.
Martin, a classically trained percussionist who first toured with Davis more than a dozen years ago, confirmed that playing with the blues legend can require a bit of adjustment. “We’ll start the song and vamp until he comes in,” he says. “He’ll also turn and kind of change, halfway through a phrase, so it’s not even the 12-bar Chicago blues that everybody’s used to. That’s not the way they do it in the Delta. The best analogy I can say is that it’s like a prizefighter. It’ll turn on a toe and snap it back, and you have to really be attentive to that.”
While Davis is in town, Martin hopes to record with him and many of the same players who will appear at the show—which is also being filmed for a documentary Martin is producing about the connection between Delta blues and grunge. “I always felt that grunge was kind of working-man’s music for the proletariat,” he says. “It was loud and raucous in the same way that the blues was when it first started. It was music for nightclubs and house parties. The first gigs I played in Seattle were house parties.”
Though Sunday’s show is already sold out, Davis says he is happy simply to still be onstage at all. “I figured I would play music all my life,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m that old. I used to have this dream when I was young, and I still have it every once in a while, that this real pretty woman is announcing my name, and I start playing on this big glass stage. My stepfather told me I was going to be a performer someday. I guess he was right after all.”
CeDell Davis & Friends The Crocodile, 2200 Second Ave., 441-4618, thecrocodile.com. SOLD OUT. 8 p.m. Sun., June 14.