There've been a number of outstanding first albums over the years, but I'm not sure any of them are more impressive than Dreams Of The Lost Tribe, by John Davis. Artists usually wait until they're established before attempting concept albums, but Davis comes right out of the chute with an ambitious swamp opera that would make for a great stage production, filled as it is with literate images of life deeper in Dixie than even the boys from Deliverance dared explore.
Davis is a 50 year old former, well, almost everything! Dock worker, Reno craps and 21 dealer, rock/soul band member, university literature professor and, now, writer and performer of excellent southern musical theater, Davis grew up in the southern Georgia environs in which Dreams is set. Having spent some of my youth in the same area, I can attest to the accuracy with which he's painted this masterpiece.
Stylistically, Dreams brings to mind the very best of Randy Newman, Leon Redbone, Tom Waits, and Doctor John. If he was younger, I'd bet that his mother was Maria Muldaur, and the forgoing gentlemen had served as step-fathers. The music ranges from rural simplicity to lushly symphonic, performed with instrumental and vocal excellence. Davis plays most of the stringed instruments (acoustic, electric and resonator guitars, banjo, mandolin, banjolin, autoharp) as well as a variety of other music-making devices, ably abetted by the fine bass work of Sean Kelly on all tracks. Julia Hays makes major contributions on violin on a number of tracks, and a variety of other musicians pitch in here and there, all to great effect.
Although a self-produced effort, the recording quality of Dreams doesn't take a back seat to ANY recording, regardless of budget.
The opening track is Invocation, in which a "Fire and Brimstone" type preacher delivers a sermon based on a passage from Deuteronomy which describes a "wilderness of fiery serpents and scorpions." This leads you into an album filled with southern dreams and nightmares, of frivolity and pathos - and, to be sure, of great stories and music.
Okeefenokee, one of my personal favorites, follows, with its jaunty melody attached to a storyline about Aunt Betty who, in the throes of heat stroke, thinks she's Dale Evans, while her nephew - the singer - tries in vain to nap away the effects of the midsummer heat and humidity. Unable to do so, thanks to the singing and dancing - and, especially, the incessant yodelling - of "Dale", he gives up, introduces himself as "Roy", and joins her in dance and song, "as we go 'Yodelodelodelodelaeehoo!'"
Eloisa is named for John's girlfriend, whom he describes as "support(ing) me when I started back into music andůmoreover, a huge part of the inspiration for songs that I write, being, as she is, my soul mate," and is probably my favorite track on the album. With a tango-y feel and lyrics that drip with images of the Spanish moss that envelops the live oaks and magnolias of the deep south, it's a sensual story of young lovers ("Eloisa, come out to me tonight. Your momma's not home, and your daddy's flying in his own private dream.")
With its mixture of frivolity and gravity, Dreams reaches a high (or is it a low) point with Hobo Supper, in which a bum soliciting handouts for dinner has the tables turned on him - so to speak. Set to a bouncy melody, the lyrics have the beggar, having made his pitch to a lonely widow, getting carried away and thinking that he might even luck into some desert of the female persuasion ("Lady, open up and let the feast begin, and after supper, baby, we gonna feast again"). The lady of the house replies "You can have a hush puppy, you can have two, and maybe after supper, baby, I can have you.", but the surprise comes as the next-to-last verse concludes "Get a kettle full of water and when it's nice and hot, chop the hobo up and throw him in the pot", with the final verse finding the widow/cannibal telling herself "Sausages, and fricassees, and savory stews, you'll be feeding off the hobo for a month or two."
After this bit of hilarity, Dreams reaches its most somber chapter, with the haunting Requiem, centered around Kelly's bowed bass, leading into In Remembrance Of Steve. It's the true story of a Viet Nam vet who, as Davis writes "took the war back home with himself" until, one day, he could no longer bear the pain. Sample lyric: "In a bar down on the corner where I've been drinking now for years. Each night I build perimeters out of cigarettes and beer."
A magnificent, poignant song, it ends "Once there was a young man, he went fighting far from home. And when the war was over, he kept fighting it alone." I can think of no song on this topic that captures the Viet Nam experience, and its fallout, any more powerfully.
After another couple of fine songs, including the rollicking Cajun Flood, Davis ties the whole package together with instrumental snippets from the earlier S'il pleur tous les jours and Okeefenokee, leading into the album closing Lullaby For Ruth. A beautiful song written for his daughter, Lullaby was the first song recorded for the album, and the only one that sounds and feels a bit different from the rest. I certainly can't say "out of place" because a song this sweet should never be out of place, anywhere, and is a lovely conclusion to a magnificent album.
I truly think that Dreams Of The Lost Tribe is a major work, and would be viewed as such if heard by "the right people". If you're interested in music as art -- as theater -- with none of the pretentiousness that might imply, I'd encourage you to check this album out. I'd also encourage you to check out Davis's web site (http://losttribedreams.com/) for song clips, song notes and lyrics.
The CD also available from http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/johndavis
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