Derek Davis’ third solo release, Resonator Blues, is a departure from the soul and funk leanings of his previous solo outing Revolutionary Soul and his history of releases and shows with Davis’ longtime band Babylon A.D. The dozen songs included on this release are drenched in blues, but never the paint by numbers variety that inspires big blues fans to sigh in despair. Instead, even on the album’s cover tunes, you get a real sense of the man behind the music rather than a self-conscious performer ill suited for tackling such a time-tested style. The first track “Resonator Blues” spurs the album to a rousing start and the blazing slide guitar woven through the tune works well with the growl in Davis’ voice. It’s a great way to open the release and shows an assertiveness that continues for the entirety of the album.
“Sweet Cream Cadillac” is cut from a slightly different cloth. The blues influence is still very present, but the tone, vocal, and lyric content is closer to traditional rock than classic blues. Nonetheless, it is an excellent tune and a good example of how Davis successfully varies the pace and sound of Resonator Blues without ever taking the collection too far afield of his vision for the release. The song “Mississippi Mud” doesn’t come together all at once. Instead, Davis wisely builds the track, milking it for its inherent drama, and it has a lot of power once the full band is involved. Despite his Oakland, California upbringing, no one sane would ever say Davis wasn’t born, in some ways, to sing these sorts of songs. He is convincing in every respect.
The emotion of the fourth song “Penitentiary Bound” is blues through and through, but the music is more akin to traditional acoustic folk as Davis sits his slide aside for a while. It is, nonetheless, quite successful. Davis invokes his speaker’s regret and anguish without ever relying on bathos and cliché. His version of the classic blues “Death Letter” connects with all the pain and despair this standard demands thanks to his heartbroken vocal and the fluent slide guitar work adorning the song. It is a real measure of his value as a performer and interpreter that Davis can get under the skin of such songs and perform them as if he wrote them.
“Unconditional Love” has a rock and roll backbeat married to harmonica and slide guitar to memorable effect. It’s an out and out love song with strong lyrics and a burning vocal from Davis, but what sticks with me are the instrumental passages scattered throughout the song. Davis unleashes some scorching slide guitar runs during those passages that are difficult to forget. The penultimate tune, “Back in My Arms”, has definite swing and more of the album defining slide guitar that so many listeners will enjoy, but the final track “Prison Train” ranks among the album’s finest moments. It starts off as an acoustic tune before shifting gears into one of the fieriest displays of instrumental prowess heard on this album. Resonator Blues will strike the right chord for blues fans and may make a believer out of those who otherwise don’t listen to music like this.