Rev. Gary Davis, the blind guitarist and street singer who influenced a generation of 1960s folk musicians, was remembered Sunday night at the Egg by two of his former pupils, instrumental ace David Bromberg and former Jefferson Airplane lead guitarist and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jorma Kaukonen, who played mostly classic folk and blues tunes, separately and together. For the most part, it was everything a roots music fan could have wanted: country-blues fingerpicking, slide guitar, tasty acoustic lead work, stellar mandolin supplied by Kaukonen’s sideman, bluegrasser Barry Mitterhoff, and many of the reverend’s signature songs.
Devotees of vocal art would have been disappointed, though—neither Bromberg, whom The New York Times branded as “a wretched vocalist” in the early 1970s, nor Kaukonen can sing like their iron-throated mentor. Although both stay on key, Bromberg’s voice is quite nasal, and Kaukonen simply has no pep in his pipes. The show sold out anyway, as plenty of listeners will overlook a lackluster larynx or two if the picking promises to be good enough.
Unfortunately, when Bromberg began his solo segment with his “I Like to Sleep Late in the Morning,” even his fabled fretwork fell short. Fancy fingerpicking such as he was attempting can be wickedly difficult to execute cleanly; he played sloppily, repeatedly missing notes in his songs until he switched to slide and nailed Robert Johnson’s Delta blues anthem, “Come On in My Kitchen.”
When Bromberg was joined by Kaukonen and Mitterhoff, though, the night took wing. Bromberg backed Kaukonen’s impeccable finger-picking with bodacious acoustic lead work and more slide blues standards including Jelly Roll Morton’s “Don’t You Leave Me Here,” Rev. Gary Davis’ “Hesitation Blues,” and the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sitting On Top of the World” as Mitterhoff added lazy fills, and then, the first of many superb solos that evening.
Mitterhoff and Kaukonen led off the second set. Kaukonen sparkled on Rev. Davis’ bouncy gospel number, “I Will Feel Better Someday,” and again on “Embryonic Journey,” his trippy solo-acoustic instrumental from the Airplane’s landmark 1967 album, Surrealistic Pillow. On the Sippy Wallace tune, “I Know You Rider,” the pair started the song as a slow shuffle, and then switched to a double-time even-eighth feel, allowing Mitterhoff to uncork his bluegrass chops. With Bromberg again on stage, other highlights were the Grateful Dead’s “Operator,” Leroy Carr’s “How Long Blues,” and Leiber and Stoller’s “Kansas City.”
For an encore, the trio picked the grimmest downer in the entire folk catalogue—Davis’ somber reminder of mortality, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” The message was incontestable, but was that any way to end the show?