Over the course of just five years in the 1970s, Dave Evans released four wonderful albums plus a dozen or so instrumentals on three compilation discs. He toured throughout Europe and became a favorite of fans of instrumental guitar music — and players — on this side of the Atlantic.
Then he seemed to vanish.
Let's be clear on which Dave Evans we're talking about: not the bluegrass musician and not the hard rock player. And we're certainly not talking about the Dave Evans who's better known as The Edge and plays guitar with a certain Irish rock band.
We're talking about a guitarist born in Wales. And before we get started, just watch this:
How is it that a musician who plays that well isn't better known - especially considering he didn't take up the guitar until he was 23?
It's not just his seemingly effortless playing (he gave that tune its title, "Stagefright," after he had to play it on live TV). There's a gift for melody and an astounding delicate beauty that goes beyond his fleet fingerwork.
He's also an accomplished lyricist and a good singer, and the guitars you see and hear in those videos — he designed and built them himself.
More than 40 years after he first released it, the British label Earth Recordings has reissued Evans' first album, The Words In Between. After it came out in 1971, London's Daily Mail named it one of the top 10 albums of the year and influential BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel became an Evans fan and supporter. His albums have been re-issued on CD before but today, all but one (Sad Pig Dance) are hard to find. And with a name as common as "Dave Evans," streaming is a challenge. The good news is that Earth also plans a first-time re-issue of Evans' second album, Elephantasia, next year.
So who was Dave Evans?
He was born in Bangor, north Wales, "an unspecified number of years ago" (as producer Ian A. Anderson wrote in the original liner notes to "The Words In Between"). He served as Third Mate in the British Merchant Navy, "crawling over the Indian Ocean in a sluggish tub of a cargo ship" (as Evans himself wrote in the liner notes to his final album, "Take A Bite Out Of Life"). After five years of that, he went to art college; ran a folk club; lived on a houseboat; made pottery, wine and guitars before winding up in Bristol in southern England at the invitation of an old college friend, the guitarist and singer Steve Tilston (who is still recording today and has just released a new album, Distant Days).
Bristol was a magnet for folk musicians from across Britain, partly because of a seven-night-a-week club called the Bristol Troubadour and partly because of an independent label named Village Thing (after the U.S. folk magnet of an earlier era, Greenwich Village), run by Ian A. Anderson (also an accomplished musician, writer, broadcaster and fascinating character). Village Thing first released Tilston's debut, An Acoustic Confusion, in 1971. Tilston had asked Evans to play second guitar on the album; Anderson liked what he heard and put out The Words In Between the same year.
The studio was Anderson's basement and the "gear" was two mics and a Revox reel-to-reel.
Ten songs were released out of that session: nine vocals and one brisk instrumental that show Evans, who was then around 30 (according to Anderson in an email), to be very much a part of the British folk guitar tradition that began in the early 1960's with Davey Graham (a brilliant acoustic guitarist best-known for his instrumental, "Angi," which Paul Simon took to a mainstream audience on Simon & Garfunkel's album, Sounds of Silence, as "Anji") and continued with Bert Jansch and his guitar-playing partner in the group Pentangle, John Renbourn, as well as Martin Carthy, John Martyn and a host of others.
They took American blues and jazz (and in Graham's case in particular, world music before it was called that) and melded them with British folk-inspired melodies to come up with something original.
What sets Evans apart — and makes him worth revisiting today — is his bouyant touch and his relaxed, unforced, conversational approach to words and music. Even an instrumental is a song with a melody – not just a collection of licks. His best lyrics tell poignant stories about characters he knew. Hearing the music now takes us back to a time and a place that Evans captures through vivid scenes, people and emotions with an easy poetry.
So, to get back to our original questions: Why isn't Dave Evans better known? What happened to him?
I got his email address from Anderson and reached out several times but got no reply.
Perhaps there's a clue in his music: that unforced, easy-going brilliance. In the liner notes to the British re-issue of Evans' final album, the 1976 Take A Bite Out Of Life, Anderson and American guitarist Duck Baker wrote, "Dave Evans' sole holdback, if you could even call it that, was a combination of wanderlust and laid backedness."
In 1977, apparently drawn by love and no great desire to "make it" in the music business, Evans moved to Belgium, where he collaborated on and off with a noted ceramicist and repaired and restored instruments. Anderson thinks Evans is still making and repairing instruments ... along with beer. But he doesn't play much anymore due to a hand injury.
In its liner notes, Evans wrote that Take A Bite Out Of Life takes its title from a Polynesian proverb he heard while in the Merchant Navy: "Eat life or life will eat you."
That seems to be what Dave Evans has been doing all along ... on his terms.
And he provides a dandy soundtrack ... and maybe an example ... for the rest of us to do just that.