Discovering the manic blues brilliance of Son of Dave's 'O2'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“Falling off my stool here. ... So it’s OK if I stomp my foot?”
And so begins O2, the 2006 record that first properly captured the manic blues of Son of Dave, a Canadian living in England who decided, seemingly on a whim, that the harmonica needed a savior. And believe it, he’s the best thing to happen to the harmonica since Paul Butterfield met a young Mike Bloomfield. He stomps his foot, he blows through menacing distortion, and he appeared from the mist. Or so it would seem.
In my own library, I can’t point to any one artist who benefited more from the internet than Son of Dave, at least in terms of personal discovery. I don’t remember who pointed me to him first, but it would be unfair to call him a YouTube “sensation.” At most, he was a YouTube curiosity. Here was a guy who was reworking tracks from artists as disparate as Daft Punk and War, rendering them unrecognizable sidewalk blues stomps and oddly familiar at once. Clad in an old suit and a wide-brimmed hat, armed with a microphone, a looping station, a harmonica and a rattle, it was all an incredible blend of new technologies and the kind of harp playing that would’ve made Little Walter shake and juke.
Son of Dave, aka Benjamin Darvill, formerly a multi-instramentalist with the Crash Test Dummies of all bands, was making the most exciting blues music this side of Jon Spencer, and doing it as a one-man band. And for too long, all I had were these incredible, jaw-dropping clips to turn to.
I typically insist on tracking down a hard copy of any album I really want, but his couldn’t be easily (or cheaply) found on vinyl or CD stateside. So, after several months of stubbornness and fruitless searching, I bought two of his albums via iTunes, O2 and O3. O3 is solid and interesting, but here he starts to use the studio as an instrument, overlaying more parts and instruments to create something a little more traditional, albeit unlike most of his peers.
O2, however, maintains the frantic aesthetic of his live performances. I understand the technology and methodology of how a basic looping station works, but how he’s able to keep track and time in his head while layering all these sounds on the fly is staggering.
But if that's all there were, that would just make for an interesting record, not a great one. The performances, live-looped or not, are sturdy and mean. The opening “Leave Without Runnin'” serves as the best example of a harp-driven blues I've heard recorded since the turn of the century. The percussive nature of his playing and beat-boxing leaves everything sounding frantic, which is how one should sound when they’re booking it from a fight.
His voice is just as powerful an instrument as his harmonica. Take one listen to “I Got What You Need,” which is almost all hums, beats and stomps underneath a low register vocal. It all comes together to be creepy as hell. It’s not a traditionally great voice, but what it’s able to do is convey emotion with power. Most singers would kill for that ability.
And what separates Son of Dave from so many, I suppose, is that overabundance of ability. There seems to be very little he can’t do, and that he’s blessed with taste leaves a record that sounds lean without being too stripped down.
Everything he’s done since breaking out on his own is worth a listen or two, but O2, more than any of his records or YouTube clips so far, offers the perfect glimpse of a mad genius at work.