Wednesday, 27 February 2008

PAUL DAVIDSON: Midnight Rider

Although cover versions from unlikely sources have been par for the course in the history of JA pop, Paul Davidson's re-reading of the Allman Brothers song bears an especial resonance. Whereas the original is essentially a formally decadent rich man's fantasy of escape and otherness (to which "Desperado," as performed by the Eagles, is the perfect answer), Davidson's "Midnight Rider" rings far truer in the wake of the milieu depicted in The Harder They Come and also as the prelude to a year - 1976 - which would encompass "War In A Babylon," "Police And Thieves," "Warrior Charge" and Marley's shooting.

This particular fugitive has far more pressing reasons to flee than Gregg Allman could ever have visualised, as confirmed by the harsh sirens which decorate the intro and melt seamlessly into slow-motion raging harmonica. Davidson himself was by trade a producer and engineer rather than a singer as such but his voice is simultaneously as roughshod as the ground he is covering - he may not even have been able to rustle up a horse - and as light as any escapee angel has a right to sound.

The subtly relentless rhythms encapsulate and summarise the jagged terrain over which he is obliged to ride; the lyric's haiku-like construction does not make it clear whether he is a criminal ("I don't own the clothes I'm wearing") or simply a desperate man trying to flee encroaching forces of evil - note the high-pitched emphasis on the "one more" of the line "And I've got one more silver dollar" as though his angel is trying to elevate him off the ground and escort him away, gliding over the indistinct tracks of presupposed blood - but his determination is so solid, and the gradual hypnosis of the unending highway counteracts with this to allow him to forget exactly whom or what he is escaping or why ("Yes, I've passed the point of caring"), the threatened killing fields suggested by the indeterminate, intermittent icepicks of string synthesiser; although the descending basslines at fadeout suggest that his escape has succeeded.

Musically the jewel is the immense guitar solo, most likely played by Davidson himself; starting off with desolate coyote cries of pining, moving through carefully picked and slid individual notes, escalating towards a weep, diving down again to execute a brief, fluent Wes Montgomery-style run before, exhausted, both ascending and descending into groans of octave chordalities; the suffering which the voice can only suggest. One of sundry unlikely, and relatively hardcore, reggae/pop crossover hits of the mid-seventies, Davidson's "Midnight Rider" connects smartly to things like "Israelites" as well as intimating that 1976 might be a tougher year than anyone had anticipated.