Grace under fire: Debbie Davies plays the blues

Debbie Davies jams on with just five strings during her Bluesdays debut on Tuesday.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Tim Parsons

When she walked in carrying a guitar several decades ago, sound crews, club patrons and workers assumed Debbie Davies was either Albert Collins’ girlfriend or a roadie. Jaws dropped when she got onstage and played.

“I kind of got off on that,” Davies laughed. “In a way, if people hadn’t ever seen something, you can’t blame them for their stereotype.”

In 1988, Davies joined Collins, the legendary “Master of the Telecaster,” on tour at a time when female blues guitarists were an anomaly. After cutting a record with Collins and playing with him for three years, she went solo and became a bit of a legend herself.

“She’s as much a legend is as anyone else and more so in a lot of ways because she was a pioneer,” said blues-rock guitar virtuoso Alastair Greene. “Guitar Player Magazine listed her as one of the top 50 female guitarists of all time, but to me she’s one of the top 50 blues guitar players of all time — man or woman.”

In its 10th season, the weekly Bluesdays concert at Squaw Valley includes some of the greatest players in blues, such as Coco Montoya, Joe Louis Walker and Kenny Neal. Davies performed in the Village for the first time on Tuesday, July 10. She brought along Greene, and the two guitarists and the rhythm section put on the show of the summer. Amazingly, the string-bending Davies appeared to break just one of them in the concert.

“Debbie is not as well known as she should be for her talent,” said Tommy Castro, who has performed with Davies several times on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. “She always delivers a solid show. She plays great guitar and she’s a real blues player. She keeps it pretty greasy and she’s a good singer-songwriter.”

As a youth, Davies was a fan of British bands Cream with Eric Clapton and John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. Clapton is apt to praise American blues players, which led Davies on musical exploration with her guitar. She describes the journey as phases.

Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage“I had an intense Albert King phase,” she said. “Then it was Freddie King, where you learn the instrumentals. I had a Buddy Guy phase and a Gatemouth Brown phase. Then B.B. King. You just learn it all and then you gravitate to your own thing.”

Greene said there is a Texas flavor to Davies’ style. She agrees.

“My parents were into big band swing and the thing I love about Texas blues is that it really swings,” she said. “The first person who was a female I ever saw perform was Bonnie Raitt. I wanted to be a Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Ray Vaughan mix.”

“At first, the challenge was to be taken seriously. I realized I just had to work really hard on my instrument. Most of my friends who were male guitar players were very supportive. Society wasn’t. My family didn’t get it. There just wasn’t sociological support at that time. … The doors are open for women players now, which is great. I’ve been able to see the big change.”

In the early 1980s, Davies played in an all-woman blues band, Maggie Mayall and the Cadillacs, which toured with the band fronted by Maggie’s husband, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers.

Before he joined the Bluesbreakers as a guitarist, Coco Montoya played drums with Albert Collins. Montoya put Davies and Collins together.

By touring with Collins, Davies said she learned “grace under fire.”

“No matter what happened, if the bus had broken down or if we had all sorts of crazy problems, Albert just put out 100 percent every night onstage,” she said. “That was really something to learn. And I had never played with a band that was that powerful. The first night I played, I thought my amp had broken down. I couldn’t even hear it.”

And while Mayall was very organized with a travel itinerary, sound checks and set lists, Collins was very loose.

“Sometimes he would pull into a venue 10 minutes before we were supposed to get onstage. Albert never had a set list. He just called out whatever he was in the mood for at the moment. You learned to watch him and hear a couple of notes and, ‘Oh yeah, he’s going to play that song.’

“A lot of times after a show, he’d go to other clubs and jam. A lot of times, he would just pull into a truck stop and we would sleep in the bunks. He knew where he was going to stay because he’d been on the road for so long. We’d go to a coffee shop and he knew everybody in it, so he’d feel at home. He knew people in the truck stop. The road was his home. So I learned to make the road my home.”

Davies also learned grace under fire when performing in northern Europe.

“They were pretty hard core over there,” she said. “A big group of guys would stand in front of me flipping me off the whole time during the set. You just had to let that stuff roll off. You had to be resilient and focused. When I was younger, I was rebellious and said, ‘I am going to do it no matter what.’ ”

Davies has recorded numerous albums and, for touring purposes, she lived on the East Coast for several years. Now she is back home in Southern California, where she often performs with Greene.

A former student at Berklee College of Music, Greene is transitioning into the blues world after touring the globe for many years as an arena-rock guitarist with the Alan Parsons Project. Davies is doing for Greene what Collins, John Mayall and Coco Montoya did for her. He’s learning nuances of the business, as well as being introduced to blues fans.

“She’s just got a really deep knowledge of playing blues guitar and by being around her, I just try and soak it all up, man,” Greene said.

-Tim Parsons

Tahoe Onstage

Alastair Greene and his Gibson and Debbie Davies with her Fender.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Alastair Greene: “I’m just trying to soak it all up, man.”


About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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