Wow, it was so good to be back at the Wine Cellar, this time with a decent crowd and Delaney on fire. Almost literally. On he strides in his trademark dishevelled suit, no talcum powder but face whitened and eyes reddened, ghoulish, and proceeds to light a fire on an ice cream, at least that’s what a smudge stick looks like from a distance. Smoke billowing, embers glowing, herbal smells wafting, not inhaling, but prowling through the audience, rubbing shoulders, piercing stare, deep down into the soul, manic Indian dance, ragdoll dance, bald spot shining, prowling, scowling and then growling into the opening song, a relatively new song, Movin’ On. Heavy breathing.Voice distortion. Vaguely reminiscent, but different, embellished, and yes, it’s the way he was in Tokyo when I saw him there last October. Millions of years ago.
More smoke blowing around the Wine Cellar. Have we checked the smoke alarms? And then a big deep country guitar moan, could be an Enrico Morricone soundtrack emerging, as he bursts into a blues stomp called So Long, from 2011’s Bad Luck Man. One man and several bands all at once, is the Delaney Davidson experience. His guitar playing has never sounded so crisp and clever. In fact, the Wine Cellar has never sounded so crisp and clever. Rohan must be rohan this little boat.
A brief pause in the music and an incantation. About our complicity. In being here tonight. Who is here against their will? A little coming together. He almost, but not quite, fails to pull this one off. A little tentative tonight. But then the guitar rattle gets him of the hook. Shake, rattle and roll the guitar, let it speak, invocation, let Dambala be invoked, the Haitian spirit, voodoo man, haunted blues. A song from 1970 originally by the Bahamian legend Exuma. Exhuming.
Suddenly, my pen explodes (yes, I have an ancient tendency to write things down). Springs out like a bullet, such is the power of Delaney’s voodoo magic. Fortunately no one is wounded, and I retrieve my bits and pieces and carry on regardless.
And another introduction, remember the dream, a journey back to childhood, your six-year-old self in your bed, when a warm wind wafts in, and you find the back door open on a warm, windy night, and here in the bottom of the garden there just might be a Shaman, but don’t be tempted, for on the table is a sandwich, peanut butter, walnut and marmite (what, no vegemite?) which when bitten into turns out to be fruit, and then there is the Shaman, as he puts a sheet over his head and wanders, grotesquely stumbles, into the crown singing Moon River (is that what that song was about?) which then segues into Ralph Stanley’s Oh Death.
All this is amazing and the audience is enthralled. And in writing this, I find my job is made easier by realising that the set list is pretty much the same as the Tokyo show. Which just goes to show that you have to keep seeing Delaney live over and over for the essence of his performance. Which in a way is also futile , because like Dylan he reinterprets his own repertoire with the confidence that comes from experience and the travails of the journeyman. It’s like a one-man opera, at the risk of completely over-cooking my metaphors. Voice distortion is also part of the mix, adds to the demonic Davidson aura. And prodigious use of the loop which builds and broadens the sound.
Off we go on the Mississippi Blues Trail, down to the Crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil and found a Hellhound on my Trail, and then crossover to rockabilly with Johnny Horton’s I’m Coming Home. Both those guys died very young, Johnson reputedly poisoned at 27 (first of the 27 club) and Horton in a car crash at 35.
Delaney asks if we want to hear some blues or a soft ballad. I respond, but don’t expect to be heard, soft ballad blues. But tonight, the Wine Cellar is like a recording studio, the sound is so pure, and he picks it up, gently taking us into Still a Fool, a Muddy Waters song.
Little Heart is next, from 2010’s Self Decapitation, and then he heads off (pun intended) to the final song of the set, Way Down South, where his guitar playing invokes the king of the rumble, Link Wray.
He wants to do what a few of us have been waiting for, and seeks permission to forgo the phoney encore exit. We refuse, and make him hide behind the speakers. Oh, what power. And what restraint. Because what he wants to do is invite his old buddy Marlon Williams to the stage. And he hardly needs asking. What/who is that sprinting to the stage like a gazelle?
Delaney and Marlon. The crusty old troubadour and the newly coiffed almost superstar. What a time they have had. 10 years ago and more now. Pre-earthquake they were the earthquake which shook up and redefined New Zealand country. Marlon is enthusiastic (he‘s an enthusiast) and grabs the guitar, forgetting for a moment whose show it is. Delaney is gruffly gracious, but then gets banished into a dance for the second song. But the first song is an old murder ballad, well known to all, The Banks of the Ohio, now brought closer to home, Christchurch’s Heathcote River, or Opawaho, its more appropriate name. Murder ballads were staple fare for Delaney and Marlon before they got busted and sentenced to great success. Delaney’s dance, well It’s so Good ( from Bad Luck Man).
And then a delightful rendition of the Maori Waiata, Purea Nei, which appeared early this year on a video on Delaney’s facebook page.
And it's over. Splendid night. Delaney Davidson, a national treasure. Hunt him out.
Radio 13 thanks and credits Ginny C for all the images featured in this article.