Blues Access review: Blues Advice

Ever wonder what the Rev. Gary Davis would have sounded like if he had studied with Blind Blake? Or had Davis lived another 20 years, what his playing would be like? Ernie Hawkins answers these questions with his unique, hard-won voice on Blues Advice.

Hawkins is one of the finest acoustic bluesmen between New York and Chicago, and he has augmented the standard blues sound with rich chord playing and moving bass lines. (He sought out and studied with Davis, Mance Lipscomb, Arthur Crudup and Robert Pete Williams.) Blues Advice is a program of several standards and obscure pieces by Davis, Blake and Skip James. Hawkins draws on equally obscure Blind Willie McTell and Son House tunes, a Jesse Thomas number and includes one original song.

Part of the disc's enjoyment comes from Hawkins' accessible affection and reverence for these masters and their creations and his devotion to the blues in general. Blake's "Police Dog Blues" has an infectious quality. Instead of playing it in open D tuning (as everyone since Blake has done), Hawkins chooses the key of E and throws in some very tasty Gary Davis moves. If you can imagine Davis doing Blake, you've got it. On "Hard Time Killing Floor," Willie Try's sparse harmonica fills befit Ernie's hollow, Jamesian guitar lines; they've really got James' haunting, high modal sound down. "Where the Mississippi Meets the Monongahela" is Hawkins' homage to his original and adopted cultural heritages, a happy swinging duet with Big Jack Johnson. He performs Davis' "Cocaine" as a beautiful instrumental. Son House's "Down South When You Do Anything That's Wrong" gets the Ry Cooder electric treatment, with touches of Blind Willie Johnson, Fred McDowell and Jorma Kaukonen. On the down side, Davis' "Sampson" is pitched uncomfortably high for Hawkins' vocal range - he could have tuned his guitar down a full step- and the accompanying unison vocal backing gives it a sing-a-long quality as well. The guys give it a good try, though.

(Editor's note: Blues Advice has just been re-pressed and "Sampson" has been re-recorded for Feb 2000) Hawkins' singing, always heartfelt, is not always upheld by his breathing, with somewhat craggy results. If he improves his vocals and opens up his range, he'll be as good as John Hammond, Catfish Keith, Paul Geremia or Spencer Bohren. Despite this, I eagerly await Hawkins' next alum, wherein he promises to reprise his wickedly intricate "Hawkins' Rag".


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