January 03, 2005

SOLO SALVATION

John Davis.jpg

The gospel according to John Davis

When he was a precocious band leader, John Davis is said to have so emulated The Beatles that he would bring a photo of the early era Fab Four for his barber to use as a guide.

A decade later, the former frontman for the Knoxville, Tenn., band Superdrag feels a much different connection with one of Liverpool, England's favorite sons, one that goes well beyond a mop-top cut.

"When George Harrison was dying, he was quoted as saying basically, 'A lot of things can wait. The search for God can't,' " Davis recalled. "I believe that."

Davis has been living out that credo since his religious awakening in late 2001, when Superdrag was recording what became its final album, Last Call For Vitriol. It was an experience that Davis says quickly changed everything for him.

Davis, whose full-length solo debut is scheduled for a March release, now displays his new source of inspiration for all to hear in his music. "It sort of took over the songwriting process," he said before a recent performance in Asbury Park, N.J. "To be clean and sober helped the process . . . to overcome the paranoia that I couldn't make music without drinking or drugs," said Davis, who added that he has been clean and sober for the past three-plus years.

He and his backing band previewed much of the record on a short club tour in November, and the result was traces of the melodic rock Superdrag did best, mixed with more soul- and blues-inspired arrangements.

"At the heart of it, it's rock 'n' roll music. I wouldn't do a trip-hop album or jazz," Davis said. When pressed to describe his new material, he added: "To me, it's gospel music. Not music a quartet would do -- I don't really fit into any of those bags. From one song to the next, it sounds like 12 different groups sometimes."

Davis' set later that night bore that out. Alongside the bouncy guitar pop of "Me and My Girl," he and his band offered up the ragged, soul-wrenching stomp of "Tear Me Apart" and a few piano-driven confessional-type ballads.

Thematically, however, the songs are not as varied. They largely center on Davis' spiritual journey, as titles like "Jesus Gonna Build Me a Home" and "Salvation" indicate. There are also references to his impending fatherhood too; he and his wife are expecting their first child, a boy, this month.

Meanwhile, Davis' wordplay is sharp as ever, whether he is writing in general terms about life ("Gonna be some dog days you'll never outrun") or making a plea to a higher calling (the couplet "Help me Jesus/Before I fall to pieces"). To hear Davis tell it, the subject matter should come as no surprise because when it comes to songwriting, "what comes out is whatís first and foremost on my mind. [Now that is] putting both feet on the path and seeking God. It's a way of life."

The joy that has come with Davis' spiritual growth and starting a family is quite a turn from the often cynical and sometimes downright bitter tunes he penned for Superdrag. After all, shortly after the release of the bandís first album, Regretfully Yours, on Elektra Records in 1996, he could already be seen in a popular video on MTV, demanding to know "Who sucked out the feeling?" -- the howling refrain from Superdrag's best known song, the music biz kiss-off, "Sucked Out."

Now, with Davis a couple of years removed from his old band -- and visibly a long way from the mop-top days, too. He sports a thin beard and long hair that extends below his shoulders -- any hard feelings about Supedrag's place in the music industry seem to have subsided. Davis would rather take solace in the band's solid body of work.

"I take a lot of pride in it, and not in a boastful way," he said. "We worked hard. When we're all granddads, and dead and buried, those records will still be around. That's the only legacy we have."

-- By George Henn

Posted by medleyville at January 3, 2005 03:51 PM
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