Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Review: Ward Davis, "Live from an Undisclosed Location in Hays, Kansas"

The story behind Ward Davis’ latest live album is almost as entertaining as the record itself. Back in 2017, he and his friend, fellow underground country singer Cody Jinks, were playing a show in Hays, Kansas. The previous night, they had played in Colorado, so they were well stocked on, um, herbal remedies.

After the show, Davis was hanging out by his van behind the venue while his bass player was inside the van partaking of said herbal remedies when one of Hays’ finest (alternately “Officer Asshole” and “Officer Tough Guy” in Davis’ words) knocked on the door of the van. The bass player threw the doors open while lighting up, the van was searched and Davis and his bass player ended up being put in cuffs for possession of just under an ounce of marijuana.

As Davis and his bandmate were being marched the full block from the venue to be booked at the courthouse, Jinks emerged from the building and proceeded to cuss the cops all the way to bailing Davis out, much to the chagrin of Davis and one of Jinks’ band members who were attempting to calm the situation. Davis ultimately ended up with a good story and some unsupervised probation. That’s the short version. It’s definitely worth reading Davis’ version, though.

At any rate, the incident launched an often-hilarious social media feud between Davis and the Hays Police Department that evolved into a sort of mutual respect. Davis still absolutely gives them grief at every opportunity, but he also promotes their charity work and offers congratulations for the good things they do. In turn, the Hays Police have given Davis the key to the city and an honorary badge (which they were very clear in explaining held no real power). It’s a fun story of something good coming out of a bad situation.

For Live from an Undisclosed Location in Hays, Kansas, Ward Davis returned to the scene of the crime for the first time with a lively set of his own songs, tunes that he penned with Cody Jinks and a few covers, some expected and some a bit surprising – but more on that later.

Davis opens the set with a rousing version of “Papa and Mama,” originally recorded by Ray Scott, who Davis played guitar for. After that he explains to the crowd that he never thought he’d come back to Hays, but he’s glad he did, before launching in to the rambling tune “Time to Move On.” Then (after giving the police chief a little jab), it’s on to familiar territory for any country fan with a cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” Davis delivers a very faithful version of the song, and while it’s almost an expected staple for underground country artists making it without radio support, it’s still fun in the set. And like I said, the covers do get a bit more, er, adventurous later on.

Davis’ close relationship with Jinks comes into focus after those opening songs, as he sprinkles a few songs they’ve written together into the set. The first one up is “Same Kind of Crazy as Me,” co-written with Jinks and Greg Jones. I hate to say it since I love Jinks’ version, but I think I like Davis’ a little better. It has a bit more swing to it, and the laid-back attitude that Davis delivers the vocal with is just a little more fitting for the subject matter to me. He continues the Jinks theme with a couple of upbeat country rockers in “Big Last Name” and “Hurt You.” The latter, about getting the last laugh on a former lover, is one of the best songs on Jinks’ 2021 release Mercy, and Davis delivers it with just as much energy and gusto here. I’m sticking with Jinks on that one, but I’m not skipping Davis’ version either.

After a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” Davis delves back into some of his big numbers, beginning with “Sounds of Chains,” which tells a familiar country music story of the wronged man who took matters into his own hands and ended up in prison. He finds God there, but there’s a twist, and the song strikes me as very much in the Johnny Cash vein. He hits some more upbeat notes with the almost pop flavor of “Nobody’s Lookin’” and “I Got You,” where Davis explains to the woman he loves that he’d be crazy to mess with his reality with drugs (weed notwithstanding, obviously). Among that run, he also throws in another song co-written with Jinks, the repentant ballad, “I’m Not the Devil” and a cover of Ed Bruce’s “Old Wore Out Cowboys,” which he recorded with Willie Nelson and Jamey Johnson.

He closes the main set with what, in my mind, is hands down Davis’ best song, “Black Cats and Crows.” The original version is a dark and moving ballad with incredible lyrics that just really hit home for me, and probably lots of other people who have been where the guy in the song is. The live version is a little bit more uptempo. It’s still good (and I’d most likely be the one to start the riot if he decided not to play it at a live show), but it loses a little of its darkness in translation. The ripping guitar solo at the end does come through very well live, though.

Then it’s time for the encore. Remember that cover I was talking about earlier? Well, this is where it comes out. Davis laments the fact that guys like he and Jinks are called outlaw when the most outlaw thing he’s done is spend about 20 minutes in the Hays jail, but says he wants to live up to the moniker a little more so “nothing’s more outlaw” than what he’s about to do. Then he launches into a cover of the 1980s Richard Marx ballad “Right Here Waiting.” Though you can almost hear the laughter in the performance, it’s actually not a bad cover of the song. After the first verse, he gives up the joke and starts off a more crowd-appropriate cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” so that guy that’s probably been yelling it in the back since the beginning of the show at least went home happy.

Finally, Davis sends the crowd away with two of his most raucous and rowdy tunes, “Get to Work Whiskey” and “You’re Gonna Die.” The first turns the story of a leaving lover into a fun drinking tune about the whiskey no longer pulling its weight in the relationship. At one point, he threatens “I don’t want to send you packing, but I’ll crack the seal on ol’ Jose.” It’s a fun sing-along that’s perfect for an encore. He closes with “You’re Gonna Die,” a reminder that no matter what you have or how you live, we’re all going to end the same way. It’s not nearly as morbid as it sounds, though. As far as I can tell, he’s never recorded a studio version of the song, but he should. The live version is fantastic, and his guitarist gets to show off a little more to close out the show.

Having recently had the opportunity to catch Davis live, I can say that this album is a true reflection of his performance. Though the setlist was very slightly different when I caught his show in Dubach, La. (no Richard Marx, sadly), it was a lot of fun, and Davis showed a true appreciation for the crowd, much as he does here. The banter between songs is quite a bit better on this recording, though, due to the story that he had to tell.

If you like genuine country music, and you’re not familiar with Ward Davis, I highly recommend that you check him out. He’s an incredible songwriter, one of my favorite out there right now, (see “Black Cats and Crows”) and a hell of a lot of fun in the live setting. And he’s worth a follow on Facebook just to hear his stories and see what kind of grief he’s going to give the Hays Police Department next.

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