Surprise Me Mr. Davis opened their midnight gig at the Mercury Lounge in New York City crowded around two microphones: the Barr brothers, Brad and Andrew, their Slip band mate Marc Friedman, recent addition but long time collaborator Marco Benevento, and songsmith Nathan Moore, all singing a low, pretty melody. All except Moore that is, who began to pull a thread of white paper from his mouth, and then continued to pull and pull, Marco giving him disapproving looks. Vaudeville lives, at least whenever Moore is on stage. Once he reached the end, maybe fifteen feet or so, he joined the band for “Tombstone,” and en masse they picked up instruments to charge into a hard rocking “Roses in Bottles.” When SMMD began six years ago or so, it was a side project for The Slip, an outlet for their folksier tendencies, but nowadays as rare as a Mr. Davis show is, they are much more common than performances by The Slip. And the sound has changed quite a bit, so that while the rootsy Americana is still there, so is a big dose of aggressive shredding and tweaking, a big dose of the avant-garde trio.
Still, the songs are at the core of the band, and they’re just so strong and open to interpretation in the same way Dylan readdresses his catalogue. “Summer of My Fall,” often an achingly beautiful song, was jaunty and slick, followed by “Emily Greene” and great version of “One Sick Knave.” Marco was perched far on the left, his head twisted over his shoulder to watch at the rest of the band, looking like some cross between Garth Hudson and Rasputin as the group built up a swollen passage, dropped into power chords and slipped right back into a lazy groove. Brad Barr issued an especially ripping solo at the end of the song, and then two tunes later he was patting frets and pulling strings on the intro to Moore’s “Joelle.” The song’s big, tragic drama was pushed over the top by another guitar solo, this one soaring to create a real stunning moment mid set.
Marco’s teammate from The Duo, Joe Russo, and Apollo Sunshine drummer Jeremy Black joined next for “Skull and Bones,” a percussion only piece that had Moore off stage ranting through a distortion mic, but the performance didn’t come off well, and night seemed to be fraying at the edges. Not too long after, however, the band was slowly stitching it back together, working through a tweaky ambient jam that pooled slightly before dropping clean as could be into a bucking “Sissyfuss.” A long, open ended version, Moore left the stage again, leaving room for solos and instrumental interplay. Marco was on piano, passing off to Brad, who cast the lead right back when he was finished. Then that pair left the stage as well, leaving Marc and Andrew alone, the bassist slamming one heavy fuzz vamp and looking up with a devilish grin.
Somewhere deep in the night Moore told a story about his struggles with writer’s block and being given a baritone ukulele that set him back to his craft. He was solo, easing his way through a song, his vocals plaintive in the crowded room, and when the rest of the band returned near the end, wrapping itself around him, the stage flooded with warmth. The final highlight of the night was the encore which had Brad tearing into a wicked slide solo to introduce “Poor Boy”; he really is a profoundly talented and distinctive guitarist. Everyone was on board for the Slip classic, Andrew playing his kit with a maraca in one hand and a stick in the other, Moore blowing a great harp solo, and the whole group clustering around the drums and keys to rock it out. And that was before they slipped into ACDC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top.” If you’re lucky, you may catch one Surprise Me Mr. Davis show a year, but on that night you’ll realize that for that one night at least they may be the best band in the country.