Minor 7th Sept/Oct 2003: California Guitar Trio, Daniele Bazzani, Steve Baughman & Robin Bullock, Orville Johnson, John Sheldon, Mad Agnes, William Lee Ellis, Claire Holley, Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan, Remy de Laroque, Paul Keim
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

September/October, 2003

California Guitar Trio, "The First Decade", Inside Out Music IOMCD 129, 2003

It's a pleasurable rarity when a group of innovators inexplicably find each other and ride an as yet un-done musical wavelength into the future, and thus define a new genre before it can even be named. The Mahavishnu Orchestra did it for fusion, The Flecktones for newgrass, and now the California Guitar Trio is doing it for... well, whatever this brand of sublime acoustic prog-rock might be dubbed by yet-to-blossom talking heads. "The First Decade" recapitulates the CGT's journey, via a "best-of" collection, over the last ten years from the group's beginnings as an outgrowth of Robert Fripp's Guitar Craft course in 1987. Three of the international participants in that course were destined to become the CGT: Bert Lams from Belgium, Hideyo Moriya from Japan, and Paul Richards from the U.S. They clicked, stumbling onto an unlikely common ground for their diverse backgrounds in classical music (Lams), rock and jazz (Richards), and surf music (Moriya), later taking their unique sonic conglomerate of three acoustic guitars to be heard by astonished worldwide audiences, backing up Fripp's League of Crafty Guitarists, then later King Crimson and John McLaughlin. Not surprisingly, "The First Decade" might fit neatly into Fripp label Discipline Global Mobile's catalogue -- the music has the necessary requisites of rhythmic and melodic complexity, spacey ambience and innovative edginess. The fare ranges from free-form and schizophreniform ("Happy Time in Fun Town"), Hawaiian ("Train to Lamy Pt 5"), industrial surf ("Yamanashi Blues" and "Beeline"), raga ("Melrose Avenue"), Steve Tibbettsian ambient ("Punta Patri" and "Above the Clouds"), Spanish ("Arroyo"), neoclassical ("Great Divide") to Mahavishnian Japanese folk ("Invitation"). Hmmm... on second thought, maybe this genre will never be named.
© Alan Fark

California Guitar Trio Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Yamanashi Blues (RealAudio)

Daniele Bazzani "Truss Roads", DBCD001, 2003

Emphatic yet empathic. It's not many fingerstyle players who can meld that magical combination of authoritative and flawless guitarwork with music that emotes enthusiasm and warmth, but Daniele Bazzani is one of the chosen few. A disciple of Tommy Emmanuel (see Minor 7th's interview with Emmanuel here), Bazzani was commissioned by Emmanuel to tab out several Emmanuel originals for posting on the TE website, so it's no surprise that Bazzani comes across sounding a lot like Emmanuel, both in his compositional style and his ability to play a riff that will stop you dead in your tracks. Like his mentor, Bazzani makes a point to acknowledge the legacies of the pioneering fingerstylists by giving an imitative nod of the head to Chet Atkins ("Mr. Atkins, c.g.p."), Merle Travis ("Travising"), and Jerry Reed ("Jiffy Jam", "The Claw"). He can definitely do the country gentleman, and though it's been done before, he gives it his own endearing Italian flair. Bazzani chooses to open the CD with "Settembre", an undulating meditation which rises and falls in degrees of melancholy, a beautiful yin pitted against the yang of mostly lighthearted fare which follows. The decision is a strategic success which establishes his depth straight from track #1 and allows him thereafter to cut loose for some delightful pickin' and grinnin', his audience henceforth sold and hanging on every note.
© Alan Fark

Daniele Bazzani's Website Buy it at Funky Junk
Listen to Settembre (streaming mp3)

Steve Baughman & Robin Bullock, "Celtic Guitar Summit", Solid Air SACD 2029, 2002

The work of Steve Baughman and Robin Bullock on "Celtic Guitar Summit" contains a delightful set of intriguing melodies and heartfelt duets. No matter what the style, creating an album of duets is not a novel idea in itself, but the precision and harmonic blend that Baughman and Bullock achieve here is quite impressive. By evoking more familiar tunes mixed with compositions from their own hand, the two guitarists make possible a whole spectrum of different emotions, moods, and textures while still maintaining a distinct Celtic flavor. The diversity of music presented here cannot go unnoticed, for the album encompasses tunes from less known lands such as Brittany, the Celtic part of France. "Breton Dance" - a piece from this very region - was one that immediately catches the attention of its listener. Here, Baughman and Bullock appear to be equal partners in the production of 3 consecutive melodies, rather than two distinct voices made to fit together. "Celtic Guitar Summit" speaks to those who are interested in Celtic music that has a soul and not just the commercialized version that's become far too popular.
© Bernard Richter

Steve Baughman & Robin Bullock's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to Lady Blayney (streaming mp3)

Orville Johnson, "Freehand", OJM 003, 2003

Three songs into "Freehand", Orville Johnson turns in an absolutely jaw-dropping marvelous instrumental version of "Somewhere". As he coaxes and caresses his dobro, he evokes every love-ache emotion you’ve ever felt, starting with the Sharks and the Jets and then roller-coasting right into what happened in your dreams last night. When you hear Johnson’s version of this "West Side Story" tune, you'll feel compelled to grab whomever is next to you and say, "Listen, please, just listen". With some understated guitar help from John Knowles, Johnson simply nails this one to the wall. I haven’t heard anything quite so affecting since I heard Brother Oswald Kirby’s "End of the World" quite a few years back. The rest of this fascinating CD registers all over the board, with half the tracks being instrumentals. "Imitation of the Blues" features a vibraphone(!) and Johnson’s strong and unaffected country voice with a bluegrassy uptempo. Mexican-style horn arrangements pop up here and there, as does Mike Auldridge on a bouncy version of Bill Monroe’s "Rocky Roads". Johnson’s own -- and only -- composition here, "Waggy Tail", sounds like a theme song for a 1960s TV show for kids, with flute, organ and bass. "A Lua do Amazonia" features a bossanova guitar and jazz piano. Even though Johnson shows his soft side again on a very nice slide guitar version of the Rolling Stones’ "As Tears Go By", he’s happy -- even joyous -- to mix it up with his able bandmates. Though an odd assortment, these performances ring true. Rare and fun.
© Fred Kraus

Orville Johnson's Website Buy it at Horse Rock Records

John Sheldon, "Sometimes You Get Lucky", BRM101, 2002

Like an easy conversationalist, John Sheldon engages with the kind of stories you'd hear over coffee. As an indie singer-songwriter he's had breakout success recently with the James Taylor cover of "September Grass", the first song, and now a single, on his acclaimed October Road album. What's more, the song "Bittersweet" is slated for release by Taylor as the only new song on an upcoming greatest hits collection. Actually, this reviewer immediately thought of Bonnie Raitt. But it will fit Taylor perfectly. This kind of validation is the stuff songwriters dream of, and Sheldon gives strong testimony to having paid his dues. As a performer in his own right he brings a surefooted, close to the middle-of-the-road sensibility to his work. His tempos and arrangements are in the steady four-four territory. He has a songwriter's voice, and can be heard straining a bit in the higher register, but overall he's comfortable, like a good friend. His voice is best suited to the conversational acoustic style of "Earn Your Love." Sheldon is an accomplished acoustic and electric guitarist, far more so than the average singer-songwriter. These arrangements are based on a tight band sound with healthy doses of acoustic guitar in the mix. "Reuben's Train" unleashes a great swamp groove. "Into the Flame" exhibits a classic rock feel, and two standout instrumentals, "Belize Nocturne" and "White Horse Beach" could well find a home in music for film. One hears echoes of a variety of guitarists in his arrangements. Traces of Jerry Garcia, Sonny Landreth, Mark Knopfler, and Danny Kortchmar come and go like passing trains. The record is well-mixed, with a warm, almost-vinyl sound. But the songs are the focus, and Sheldon may find even more gold in this collection, with songs like "The Right Way" practically begging to be covered. If you like JT, give John Sheldon a try.
© Steve Klingaman

John Sheldon's Website Buy it here
Listen to September Grass (streaming mp3)

Mad Agnes, "Magic Hour", 2003

A band moniker such as 'Mad Agnes' conjures bold images of punks, shoe-gazers, and wayward alternative rockers. But don't run away, this trio is hardly the type to lead a raucous revolution. Says the liner notes: "Magic Hour is the time just before dusk... a time of infinite possibility between day and darkness... fleeting... it is our favorite hour." Akin progressive-folk artists of yore, most notably Fairport Convention, Steelye Span, and the Strawbs, the multi-faceted Mad Agnes thrives on story-telling and a traditional aesthetic steeped in classical motifs, intricate harmonies, and complex counterpoint, most of which are deftly rendered on acoustic guitars and vocals. Margo Hennebach, Adrienne Jones, and Mark Saunders all have impressive pedigrees, graduating from distinguished conservatories and receiving various awards and recognition for their seasoned musicianship and singing skills. Though Magic Hour has many magic moments of musical expertise, most of the songs at the front of the record lack a simple hook to grasp on to, and therein lies the group's sole (or is that "soul") shortcoming. But let's focus on the good news. This pastoral collection really kicks in by track seven by way of a tender reading of Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day." Hennebach and Jones' two-part harmony exquisitely joins together in the chorus atop a keyboard sample that adroitly mimics an accordion. Adrianne Jones' "After Good-bye," the very next cut, employs a subtle yet seductive samba groove which aptly underpins the singer's passionate intentions, then culminates with an infectious "good-bye, good-bye, good-bye" chorus reminiscent of Joni Mitchell's FM radio heyday. Hennebach's upbeat "Melting Snow" displays fine slide work and strong melodies. "Winter Snows" another fine Hennebach composition, melds shimmering harmonics, funky bass-string runs, arpeggios, and electric guitar swells to add a tinge of psychedelic mischief. Drawing to a close with "Uninvited Ghost," Mad Agnes cheerfully throws in the kitchen sink with exotic percussion, hypnotic guitar solos, and orchestral keyboard lines. Perhaps with a more objective running order which balances the ethereal cuts with the simpler, catchier tunes, Magic Hour would flow somewhat easier. In other words, if this were a vinyl platter, you'd quickly wear out side two.
© Tom Semioli

Mad Agnes' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Dancing Man (streaming mp3)

William Lee Ellis, "Conqueroo", Yellow Dog Records 1043, 2003

With one foot in the 21st century, the other in the timeless magic haze of the Mississippi Delta, William Lee Ellis leads us into a world steeped in life’s mysteries and double-crosses. A haunting quality permeates this 13 track collection -- more than a bit of the hoodoo voodoo. Ellis plays a mean guitar, and he wastes no time in letting it loose in the opening title track, later snaking sweetly through "How the Mighty Have Fallen" as well. Ellis’ selection of the gospel-based "My Religion Too", with its acapella chorus, turns out to be a great and unexpected change of pace; featuring the Masqueraders, Ellis takes a telling look at religion. His one misstep may be the feverish "Rider on Your Soul", which, though it fits thematically, seems too harsh musically for this set. Ellis gets soft and dreamy with "Northern Lights" and decidedy uptempo with "Never Be the Child". His voice and guitar combine for a stellar performance on "Everything Changes But You"; it’s a simple, but quietly powerful number which really shows off his deft compositional skills. It’s a treat when a song sounds like its lyrics -- and "Honey Take Your Time" just eases along like a morning stroll, a wonderful soothing balm. While it may seem unfair to bring out Ellis’ only non-self-penned track for special attention, it simply must be noted that he really fashioned Chuck Berry’s classic "Maybellene" into his own work. This slowed-down, fun and funky bluesy version will have you hitting the repeat button more than a few times. "Conqueroo" weighs in as a fine collection from a veteran singer/songwriter.
© Fred Kraus

William Lee Ellis' Website Buy it at Yellow Dog Records
Listen to She Conqered the Conqueroo (RealAudio)

Claire Holley, "Dandelion", YepRoc Records YEP 2051, 2000

The opening track of Claire Holley's "Dandelion" ("6 miles to McKenney") is so kick-ass you might find yourself - like I did - listening to it over and over. The cut solidly establishes Holley's country credentials with great help from some burning slide fills by Rob Seals. But move on. The rest of the CD is equally worthwhile, though it never goes full tilt again. Instead, it ventures into the territory staked out by an artist like Patty Griffin, creating characters and telling stories. The title tune is a love song to a flower from someone who - we gather - understands the pitfalls of looking for love in the wrong places. Its subject matter sets it apart; so do its pop ambitions and chord changes, with a chorus that modulates twice. In "Henry's," Holley, who wrote everything on the album, creates a poignant picture - one night at the local watering hole - by layering detail on detail without comment. The chorus shows the depth and resonance of Holley's voice. Chad Barger's chime-like work on the Rhodes takes the tune out to great effect. In "Waiting for the Whales to Come," someone bends the guitar strings in all the right places in what must be the only country song ever written about whale-watching. It ends with a lovely guitar duet. "Love Never Came" builds relentlessly, adding some great harmony, rhythmic harmonica accents, and tasty licks on the dobro from Will Straughan. "Playground" finds Holley once again using observant details and singing her heart out. "Waving Goodbye" enters the mind of a dying friend. "The Deep" finds Holley back at the water, ending the album in what seems like a more self-disclosing mode. Let's summarize: tuneful songs; delicate, literate lyrics; beautiful singing; terrific instrumental support... They say dandelions are edible. This one is delicious.
© David Kleiner

Claire Holley's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to 6 Miles to McKenney (streaming mp3)

Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan, "20th Anniversary LIVE!", NoGuru Records NG 2000-2, 2000

Recorded in concert at Victoria Hall in Santa Barbara California, Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan's 20th Anniversary Live! is a joyous and raucous celebration of a musical partnership that has spanned two decades and endured more than 3,000 gigs. Ball, a seasoned harmonica player, guitarist, and vocalist, and Sultan, a master of various blues guitar styles, have shared billings with everyone from Big Joe Turner to Jackson Browne, and have released numerous albums together as well as on their own. The tracks here range from delta blues, like Muddy Waters's "Honey Bee", to a spirited rendition of "He's in the Jailhouse Now", a song made popular by country music's first star, Jimmy Rodgers, to original compositions reminiscent of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. The essence of this duo becomes apparent immediately after Kenny Sultan's tremendous fingerstyle work on "Dallas Rag/Harlem Rag". As soon as he concludes, Ball tears into an unaccompanied "Sittin' on Top of the World" on harp, as if to say "See, I don't need him, either". The duo then launches into "One Monkey Don't Stop the Show", which implies that, while both musicians can clearly stand alone, show-stoppers really do take two monkeys. Good stuff.
© Chip O'Brien

Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan's Website Buy it at Amazon.com

Remy de Laroque, "Carol's On My Mind", AWNP Records, 2003

Artful pop is an uncommon commodity in a world dominated by Justin, Christina and the masses molded in their likeness. French-born, New York City-based Remy De Laroque delivers plenty of substance on his latest offering, Carol's On My Mind. The title track is not an ode to a lost lover, but a reference to the September 11th tragedy. It's a unique and eloquent reaction to the events of that day that tells the story of the songwriter's daughter's favorite doll. In the midst of walking ten blocks through the dust and destruction of the collapsing buildings, Remy's daughter quickly found comfort in her doll, Carol. "Carol's On My Mind" is the uncommon perspective-adjustment that can actually change the way we see the world. Remy's heartfelt songwriting, acoustic strumming and fingerpicking are perfectly complemented by an electric guitar and full backing band and vocal harmonies. "Can't Shut Down" features a blistering, feedback-filled solo and tasteful touches of sax. Remy De Laroque is truly gifted and finds healing in his songs. "Don't Stand In the Rain" sums-up Remy's healing spirit: "would you hear my voice, and let me sooth you, those tears, they'll depart you."
© Rick Gebhard

Remy de Laroque's Website Buy it here
Listen to Don't Stand the Rain (RealAudio)

Paul Keim, "Spanish Skies", No Guru Records 2003-2, 2001

Paul Keim could not have had much angst about career choice as he came of age. Just what else do you do with your life when you have the charismatic combination of a smooth-as-silk voice, a deftness for cutting and pasting lyrics, an intuitive feel for the guitar and it's unexplored riffs and chords, and an innate vantage to bring it all together? The same must have been true for both Eric Clapton and Peter Green, with whom Keim shares some stylistic similarities. And though heavily blues influenced, Keim can be chameleonic. The opening cut "Leave Me Hanging" has the produced but likeable feel of Paul Brady. "Hat du Jour" asserts itself with fiercely punched but ringing acoustic chords reminiscent of Francis Dunnery. "Another Sunday" rivals Randy Newman's lazy and folksy songsmithery. Musicmate and lifemate Mary Murphy spreads her lovely voice up parallel to Keim's on "Nothing You Haven't Heard", capturing the sparse and bittersweet style of early Simon & Garfunkel at a time when they did it only for the music. But in all his songs, Keim revels in visual imagery of the moment, projecting everyday vignettes via his poetic lyricism to breathe as sensate as celluloid upon the big screen (one of his favorite metaphors ..."small town movies in black and white, these grainy visions of our lives"...)
© Alan Fark

Paul Keim's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Leave Me Hanging (streaming mp3)

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