Davy Graham – Midnight Man

Album Review | Bread & Wine | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 4/5

Davy Graham is a legendary figure, his ability on the guitar, his influence and the endless stories make it difficult to separate the man and the music. Safe to say that everyone from Paul Simon to Ed Sheeran would sound very different without Davy. Travelling in Morocco, playing with musicians in North Africa on both the Oud and Guitar, Graham discovered or invented The DADGAD tuning. For many guitar players coming after him this opened up atmospheric possibilities, becoming almost as standard as standard tuning. In itself that is enough to justify Graham eternal admiration and the musical equivalent of a historic blue plaque. “Anji”, on an EP with Alexis Korner, an almost invisible instrumental album for Pye, allegedly at the instigation of Bob Monkhouse, the seminal first Decca album and his collaboration with Shirley Collins chart the route of an ever moving musician with a growing reputation and a sharp ear, recording what music he likes and trying with canny covers, possibly to appeal to a wider pop or Hipster audience.

“No Preacher Blues” written by Graham himself is a protest song, peppered with romantic references to the travelling troubadour lifestyle. It is Davy’s first recorded self composed song and while his boyish voice is at odds with the lyrics, its a good one. Musically with Barry Morgan’s bright jazzy percussion, Tony Reeves’ upright bass and wonderful guitar flourishes its a clear influence on later Pentangle with the same folk baroque over jazz back like summery feel. His take on Argentinian pianist and arranger Lalo Schifrin’s “The Fakir” is close to the frenetic hypnotic feel of the 1963 Cal Tjader version arranged by Lalo. The skittering percussion with finger symbols and pulsing drums are close in feel, Davy Graham’s eastern guitar carries the melody in a way that is beautiful, engaging and easier on the ear than the reeds and vibraphone in Tjader’s take. “I’m Looking Through You” is a sparking version of a Lennon McCartney Rubber Soul track. “Humming Bird” is another Graham song, a folk blues love song over a bossa nova beat. “Watermelon Man” is a Herbie Hancock composition, from his achingly cool, essential Blue Note period. The tune was then made popularised in a more Austin Powers mode by Mongo Santamaria. With beautiful flourishes that sound like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn in full flight Davy owns it and makes the tune his own on another album highlight. “Stormy Monday” is a sublime guitar bass and drums version of the traditional blues classic. With Morgan and Reeves providing a solid base on this “Money Honey” and Rufus Thomas’ “Walkin’ The Dog” is rhythm and lead over the top. He isn’t a blues shouter, but “Davy’s Folk Blues” is tight, funky and doesn’t put a foot wrong. “Fire In My Soul” is a version of Blues singer and inspirational guitar player Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” It’s a hymn to the blues and the singer’s love of life. “Lost Lover Blues” is a traditional folk blues with some beautifully nimble playing over Morgan’s train drum shuffle. Junior Mance’s call and response gospel jazz piece “Jubilation” maintains a wonderful jazz rhythm transposed to Graham’s three piece. Davy throws in some wonderful flourishes and runs while maintaining the pulsing piano beat of the tune. There is a lovely shuffle to Graham’s version of Oscar Brown Junior’s “Rags And Old Iron.” As a singer Davy doesn’t touch the jazz power of the writers version or the atmosphere of Norma Waterson’s later version, but his version is solid and well played. Vocally Davy Graham is more at home on the insistent album closer Jelly Roll Baker. Listen as well to the sparkles and shines between the guitar and bass.

This is a varied album of always impeccable folk blues guitar, stunning instrumentals and tasteful renditions of pop, R n b and blues songs. By 1966 The Beatles and others had established the idea of the performer songwriter. Davy’s opening own song is a credible romantic acoustic troubadour tale that would serve later songwriting guitar players like Michael Chapman, Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Al Stewart and a million others very well indeed. The image of the guitar wielding midnight man is there on the cover. To these ears at least that fresh bright sound seems to have heavily inspired at least John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, recording their earlier albums at the same time, with the template for Pentangle, but the buying public rushing towards effects and sitar saturated Psychedelia sadly didn’t take to Davy Graham’s second Decca album. Fifty three years later, Graham’s sixties music, like a lot of the Chapman, Roy Harper and Pentangle stable music has aged well and sounds excellent. To this writer at least Davy and Co have retained a gravitas and integrity lacking in much of the more successful phased, flanged, pixie, Tolkien and Wonderland referencing music that immediately followed. It’s a shame more people didn’t get it at the time, but I think part of Graham enjoyed the outsider role.