Big-City Bluesman Ups Rocky’s Game

Paul Bass PhotoThis time, the shiny black-and-white Stacy Adams wingtip shoes didn’t do the trick. Rocky Lawrence needed an extra jolt of inspiration.

Lawrence, New Haven’s reincarnation of blues legend Robert Johnson, was playing his regular Monday night gig at Anna Liffey’s bar on Whitney Avenue. Delta Blues Night. Where he’s usually the main act.

He had on his customary three-piece suit, tie knotted to the throat. He had on the aforementioned footwear (pictured). Enough to ready any performer to take on an audience.

This Monday night, though, he also had a new friend to bring onstage, an intimidating presence: A big-time blues performer from New York City named Guy Davis. Son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Celebrated recording artist, festival act, even an actor on the side. (He played Robert Johnson on Off-Broadway.)

Davis can finger-pick the blues, shout out the blues, bend the blues on a harp like, well, the devil. Lawrence held Davis in awe.

Davis is in town performing in a four-weekend run at Lyric Hall of a show called Long Time Gone: Words & Music By Bob Dylan. (The run ends this weekend.)

Lawrence met Davis at the show. He invited Davis back to his Westville living room; they jammed and hit it off. Hence the invitation to join him onstage at the regular Anna Liffey’s gig.

So rather than play all night, Lawrence started off with just four solo numbers Monday. On his open-tuned acoustic six-string guitar, slide on hand, he offered meticulously faithful, careful renderings of classics like Johnson’s “Me and the Devil.”

Philip Rosenthal PhotoTwo chairs were set up on the stage in the back of Anna Liffey’s cozy, narrow upstairs barroom. One remained empty while Lawrence performed (pictured), awaiting Davis. The spotlight flashed mostly on the empty chair, more often than not shrouding Lawrence in darkness in the next seat over.

Then Lawrence called Davis to the stage. It was clear Lawrence was awed. Here’s the guy you were waiting for, Lawrence said. The one who can really play. I’ll get going now.

Not so fast.

Davis took the seat in the spotlight—and, before launching into an extended solo set, invited Lawrence to stick with him.

They launched into a foot-stomping version of St. Louis Jimmy’s “Goin’ Down Slow.”

Unlike the button-downed Lawrence, Davis had his shirt collar open. He wore jeans. He wore scruffed sandy-colored cut-off Cuban heel boots..

They may have looked like a study in contrasts. But then Davis’s left heel started thumping the beat. The right toe of Lawrence’s wingtips started thumping the beat. They were thumping in synch, building the bass like a locomotive.

Davis leaned into the vocals; Lawrence bent over his guitar and filled in the lines with saucy slides. (Click on the play arrow to watch a video of the performance shot by Philip Rosenthal.)

Two minutes in, Davis broke for a solo—and announced, “Rocky Lawrence y’all!” Lawrence was off and running. His fingers loosened up by the end of the verse; with a nod Davis ushered him to a second round, and Lawrence let it fly. Davis followed with a sweet, then rousing harmonica break, Lawrence hollering encouragement along with the crowd.

They kept the song going for six minutes without letting up. The New Haven regular and the Big Apple boldfaced name were one united stream of blues power.

“We’re going to do one more—then he’s going to entertain you for real,” Lawrence told the crowd afterward. “He’s just showing me some points.”

“Works fine for me,” Davis interjected.

Philip Rosenthal PhotoA fist bump sealed the deal.

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