Surprise Me Mr. Davis | 07.11 & 07.12

Words by: Kayceman | Images by: John Chapman

Surprise Me Mr. Davis & Big Light
07.11 :: Moe’s Alley :: Santa Cruz, CA / 07.12 :: Cafe du Nord :: San Francisco, CA

Surprise Me Mr. Davis :: 07.12 :: San Francisco
It’s rare when a concert becomes more than just music, enjoyment and time spent amongst those you relate to. When the waves of energy enter your body and change something inside it begins to border on the spiritual. This usually happens a few times a year, but almost never twice in the same weekend. What occurred on back-to-back nights with Surprise Me Mr. Davis stirred something in those who were fortunate enough to come along for the ride. They make me want to do all the things I dream, and better yet, they make me believe that I can.

A big part of why Mr. Davis touches us so deep and fills us with such inspiration is because this band does the same thing for its members. When you create the holy union of The Slip and Nathan Moore you get something completely different, something stronger than they could ever be apart. These two entities fill every void, building support for the other’s weakness, carrying the entire project to soaring heights. Nathan Moore is a natural bandleader. His voice is strong, his presence magnetic and his between song banter captivating. With Moore at the helm, Brad Barr can be a true lead guitarist. Brad no longer has to carry all the vocal duties as he does in The Slip; instead he can sing lead on a few songs, do support work and harmonies on others. Moore is the voice that The Slip will never have. On the other side of the coin, The Slip gives life, color and emotion to the songs Moore sings. One of the most gifted trios of this generation, The Slip move without thinking, creating waterfalls of sound, climbing mountains and blowing out walls. Without The Slip, Moore is a tender folk singer with his acoustic guitar and amazing stories. With The Slip, he’s a rock & roller. Together, they are capable of reaching and moving the masses. If there were any justice, Surprise Me Mr. Davis would be on the radio, helping bring back that golden age when CSNY was pop and classic rock wasn’t only from some other decade.

Both shows in Northern California were exceptional, each for their own reasons. Friday night in Santa Cruz was a smaller, more intimate affair and featured a rare two set performance. There was room to walk through the sweaty bar and you could hear the music with clear perfection standing on the deck looking onto the stage.

B. Barr & Friedman :: 07.12 :: San Francisco
Following an invigorating set from San Francisco’s Big Light, specifically the psychedelic meltdown in “Heavy” and the stunning debut cover of Gillian Welch‘s “Wrecking Ball” (complete with references to Santa Cruz), Mr. Davis took the stage and the space up front swelled to capacity.

Starting both the S.C. and S.F. shows with “Ladies and Gentleman,” it’s one of the few times we get to hear drummer Andrew Barr take the mic. Reading from his little black book, the song has a carnival or traveling troubadour vibe, and was clearly created for, and could only be played as, the first selection of the night. Off to a strong start, by the time they hit “I Hate Love” early in the set it was a sing-along party, the crowd pushing the band and the band feeding the fans. It was during “Sisyphus” that shit went to the proverbial next level. An old Moore track given new life by Davis, “Sisyphus” is a blue-collar song about being who you are. Building with a slow patience, it started with Moore on a tambourine and Brad Barr plucking a pensive guitar intro, which eventually led to lyrics such as “I ain’t working in no factory, no factory.” A dynamic song with subtle tempo shifts and bulging bass work from Marc Friedman, the whole thing exploded into a frantic guitar-led jam that brought visions of The Who to mind.

Following the perfect Set One closer “Back In 15 Minutes,” the band returned with a fire in their belly. Kicking off the second set with “Poor Boy,” they cranked the energy up with Moore on harmonica and Brad Barr getting dirty on some roadhouse blues, manhandling his slide in a manner that would have made a young Keith Richards blush.

This evening in Santa Cruz also happened to be longtime Slip/Davis friend and drummer Ezra Lipp‘s birthday. To honor the man, they brought him onstage and let him pick what song to play. With Andrew Barr now on percussion and Lipp behind the kit, the band tore through a fierce reading of “Rubber Ball.” The night finished with a “Home Away From Home” campfire sing-along and the show-stopping finale of “As The Crow Flies.” Standing center stage around one mic, “As The Crow Flies” is an a capella number unlike anything in the band’s repertoire. With Brad clasping a leather bound black book that looked eerily like a Bible and singing in an intense, haunting high-register he’s never come anywhere near before, this song could have come out of the 1920s. With the four men swaying in time, stomping on the stage and Barr crushing the lead, there was a pseudo-religious vibe, an almost Southern Baptist thang, and then the “Bible” went up in flames (literally) and the night was over. We’d been washed in the holy waters of Surprise Me Mr. Davis, born again and ready for the long night ahead.

Hurley & Torphy :: 07.12
After the show it was clear the band knew it was a special gig. Talking with Nathan Moore, dripping with sweat and beaming with a glow not unlike the look of a man in the throes of post-coital bliss, he smiled as he said, “We really got it tonight.”

Where Santa Cruz was like a family get-together, Saturday night in San Francisco was a hero’s welcome. Sold out with a line down the block and longtime fans stressing about the tickets they would not get, this tour-closing gig was shaking with energy before a note had been played.

Once again featuring Big Light as the opener, this time they were without guitarist-vocalist Jamie Fordyce which left the door open for Dan Hurley to play a larger role. This outing for Big Light was a bit more restrained (in a good way), and the sound was infinitely better due to Apollo Sunshine drummer and Big Light producer Jeremy Black working the boards. Black would also sit in with Davis later in the night, allowing Andrew Barr to sing lead on the Ray Davies cover “Starstruck.” Of particular note for Big Light’s set was the interplay between bassist Steve Adams and drummer Bradly Bifulco on “Bonebreaker,” the sit-in by ALO’s Dan Lebowitz on lap-steel as well a the guest spot by Nathan Moore on his song “The Legend.”

Early in the show Davis let it bleed on “Everything Must Go,” which led to Moore crowd surfing on his back across the floor to the rear of the venue and back to the stage. Loose from the sleepless night before and working off adrenalin and booze, it was a different type of show, a bit messier but equally as engaging. But where some lines were blurry, they found solid ground on “When A Woman.” A sentimental tune with incredible structure, both the lyrics and Brad Barr-led jam (which had a Joy Division feel at one point) pulled tears from grown men.

B. Barr & Moore :: 07.12 :: San Francisco
Repeating several songs from the Santa Cruz show, “Sisyphus” was once again a serious funk get-down, “I Hate Love” received perhaps the biggest crowd reaction and Big Light’s Fred Torphy joined the fray for “Emily Green.” But what stood out from the mid part of the San Francisco show was what a true bandleader Nathan Moore is. Battling technical difficulties all evening, Moore never let it shake him. He switched strings, swapped guitars, played with broken gear and never let it faze him. At one point his guitar(s) were in such bad shape that he was forced off stage, leaving The Slip to fill the empty space. After an awkward moment, unsure of what to do, they dove into “Children of December” and lit the Du Nord on fire. Although the first part of the song was rough, about midway through Friedman took over and the whole thing came to a triumphant finish, just in time to welcome Moore back to the stage for a stellar new song, “Roses and Bottles.”

The new songs are perhaps of the most interest to Mr. Davis fans. As incredible as all their material is the new ones seem a tad more mature, perhaps put together with a bit more knowledge and keen attention to harmonies and hooks. This new batch also leaves room for the band to stretch out on many instrumental segments, and it’s when they temper their frantic energy and lock into the groove that they become an unstoppable machine.

Following a nice reading of “Fat King of Gods” with Torphy on guitar and vocals and another new tune, “One Sick Knave,” the band gave a triple encore featuring the Sam & Dave soul classic “Hold On I’m Coming.” For a weekend full of highlights, this ranked way up there. Friedman was a monster on the bass, covering vast expanses with ease as Moore led the hand swaying, crowd singing, sweat-your-ass-off blowout – truly an over-the-top call to help close the weekend. And just when it should have been too much, they closed it down again with a capella standout “As The Crow Flies.”

For years Surprise Me Mr. Davis has been a side project, something The Slip and Nathan Moore do when they have time. After witnessing what these cats did over this past weekend and with a fresh album rumored to be in the works, one can only imagine what would happen should this band fully dedicate themselves and really push it.

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