Thursday, March 9, 2023

Review: Ward Davis at the Louisiana Grandstand (March 3, 2023)

When Ward Davis’ solo acoustic performance at the Louisiana Grandstand theater was announced, I almost decided to skip it. I’d just seen Davis with his full band back in the fall and had a heavy concert slate for 2023 already. I logged in on the day tickets went on sale, and it just so happened that there were still a couple of front row center-section seats left at a price less than I paid for one upper deck ticket to see his friend Cody Jinks a week later. I couldn’t pass that up, and it was a fortuitous turn of events because I really would have hated to miss this show.

This was my first visit to the venue, and you kind of have to know what you’re looking for. It’s a historical-looking unmarked red-brick building with white columns, and if not for the valet parking sign pointing around to the side, I would have wondered if I were in the right place. Walking in, the building has the feel of a place that country greats might have played back in the 1950s. Two staircases to either side of the entrance lead to the upstairs theater, about a 500-ish capacity place with wooden auditorium-style seats, a smallish stage and red curtains. It definitely had the feel of a place where you could have seen Hank Sr.

So, it’s already a cool venue, and for my money, Ward Davis stands as one of the best songwriters out there right now. That’s a perfect pairing.

Davis’ guitar began to play before the curtain opened, and he delivered a brand-new song right out of the gate, the first of several that we’d hear over the 90 minutes or so that he played. He followed that up with the more familiar “Sounds of Chains,” a dark tune about revenge on a cheating lover and the ultimate punishment for it. With the crowd warmed up with a couple of tunes, Davis brought out the other part of the show, and we soon learned that he’s just as great a storyteller as he is a song writer.

The stories started with the performance of a couple of songs that he wrote with Cody Jinks, “I’m Not the Devil” and “Same Kind of Crazy as Me.” He drew chuckles from the crowd with his yarns and jokes about Jinks, including of course, the story of his arrest for possession in Hays, Kansas, and Jinks “dog-cussing” the police as he came to get him out of jail.

He also told the story of the night that he met Jinks when he played an opening slot for the grand payday of $150. (“Cody was just throwing around money even back then,” Davis quipped.) That meeting led to them writing “I’m Not the Devil,” and the rest is history. Davis made a tongue-in-cheek habit of dropping Cody’s name throughout the night to the point where you could have made a drinking game out of it, but it was all in good fun.

The crowd certainly enjoyed those couple of songs, and as we sang loudly along with the chorus of “Same Kind of Crazy as Me,” Davis stopped singing and just listened with a big grin. The joy in his face at hearing everyone sing his lyrics seemed very genuine, even though we knew it was definitely not the first time it had happened. In that moment it seemed there was no other place he would rather be, and the same could be said of the crowd.

The night had plenty of humor and laughs. Davis’ mother, who grew up in Shreveport, was in attendance, and he muttered a lot of joking apologies to her as he told his stories or dropped the f-bomb in the second verse of the rowdy hell-raiser “Get to Work Whiskey.” At one point, he spotted a friend in the crowd, greeted her and told the story of a high school misadventure that included him blacking out (“sorry, mama”) before joking that he probably shouldn’t just say what comes into his mind into the microphone.

The biggest apology of the night, however, came when he performed the as-yet unreleased (and perhaps never-to-be released) love song that he wrote for his wife, “The Weed in Willie’s Bowl.” Before the song, he explained that the first time he’d played it his mother was in attendance with his wife, and his mother’s face turned red “but not for the reason you may think – and when you figure it out, your face may be red, too.” Sure enough, the second verse delivered a zinger that you just don’t hear often in country music (“sorry, mama”). I won’t spoil the surprise, but the song is out there if you want to find it.

But the evening wasn’t all fun and games. On several occasions, Ward Davis got real and raw with the people who were there. The first time was in the introduction of a new song about his newfound sobriety. He was very open with the struggles that he’s had trying to give up alcohol, as well as the effect that its had on his songwriting output. As a fan who has been wondering when a new record was coming since he released the single “Another Bad Apple” last year, I walked away with a better understanding of the battle that he’s been fighting to make it happen. Davis was certainly not looking for sympathy from the audience, he was just sharing his experience and telling it like it is in a conversation with us. From the songs that he played on this night, it should be well worth the wait.

All of that didn’t keep him from singing the songs he’s written about drinking or making jokes about it, either. In one quiet moment, someone in the auditorium popped open a beer that echoed throughout. “Man, that beer cracking open sounded good,” Ward joked as he took a sip of his water and grimaced to the crowd at the taste. “Did that little spray come off of it, too?”

Perhaps the most poignant tale that he told during the night, though, was about how he celebrated his 35th birthday. Having spent 15 years trying to make it as a songwriter in Nashville, he was at rock bottom in his career. He’d had songs recorded by the likes of Sammy Kershaw and Trace Adkins, but none of them had hit for him, and he was still struggling. He’d decided that it was time to hang up the guitar and get a real job so he could pay the bills and support his family. Then he got a call. Someone wanted to record his song “Unfair Weather Friend.” And not just any someone, but two big someones – Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Not only that, but Haggard liked the song so much that it was on the list of songs he requested be played at his funeral.

Davis got emotional as he told the story of hearing their cut for the first time on Nelson’s bus (“sorry, mama”) and what the whole thing meant to him and how it inspired him not only to not give up on his dream, but to actually take the next step and cut his own record. That led into the title track from his 2015 debut, “15 Years in a 10 Year Town.” The record featured a guest spot from Nelson and Davis’ friend Jamey Johnson on a cover of “Old Wore Out Cowboys,” one of a couple that he played on the night.

Of course, Ward played his version of “Unfair Weather Friend” after the story. He’d also played “Sunday on Bourbon Street” earlier in the night, another song that he had written that was recorded by Kershaw. It was a fitting addition for the Louisiana audience. He regaled the crowd with stories of hanging around and working with older legendary Nashville songwriters (one of which was most unimpressed with his association with Nelson and Haggard) just to hear their stories as much as to learn the craft from them. 

That led to a discussion of Bob McDill and his hatred for Waylon Jennings’ “Theme from the Dukes of Hazzard,” which Davis also teased while telling the tale. He then played the second cover, “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” written as a response to the Jennings tune and recorded by Don Williams. Davis acknowledged that he’d always felt more comfortable with McDill’s vision of a “good ole boy” than Waylon’s.

Finally, Davis closed the evening with a guitar take on his piano ballad “Black Cats and Crows.” I don’t know how everyone else felt, but for me, it was the perfect ending to the night. I discovered Ward Davis a couple of years ago through, of course, Cody Jinks, and “Black Cats and Crows” was the song that really grabbed my attention. Normally, I’m not one for the song that artists use to close the set. I’m usually into the deeper cuts, but I’ll make an exception in the case of this song every time.

In the last couple of years, there’s probably not another song that I’ve listened to more, and “Black Cats and Crows” never gets old. It’s a song that speaks to me, and it was the perfect way to bring home a rollercoaster of a night that saw hell-raising good times and very emotional and real moments. More than a concert, it felt like we were sitting around the living room with Ward Davis having a couple of (non-alcoholic) drinks and shooting the shit. In the words of my 17-year-old son, it was “bleeping awesome” (“sorry, mama”). The Louisiana Grandstand has promised to have Davis back for another show soon, and we promise that we’ll be front row again.

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