Minor 7th Nov/Dec 2003: Ellis Paul & Vance Gilbert, Eric Bibb, Laurence Juber, Guster, Don Ross, Larry Coryell, Badi Assad & John Abercrombie, Chris Daniels, The Kings & Friends, Jessica Papkoff, Nadaka, Steve Baughman, Chris Grace, Colin Brooks
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

November/December, 2003

Ellis Paul & Vance Gilbert, "Side of the Road", Philo 1239, 2003

In a post 9/11 world, Ellis Paul and Vance Gilbert want to comfort you. And, though they also hope to inspire, they refuse to "drive (their message) down people's throats." What you get in their first joint project is some of the loveliest singer/songwriter music of the year, mostly cover tunes by writers the performers admire. What you don't get -- for the most part -- are the character studies and syncopated grooves that drive their solo efforts. Instead, the duo has produced a tuneful take on "where we are now". The lead track, Mark Erelli's "The Only Way", directly addresses the day "the streets of New York City looked like the gates of Hell". It is a message song to be sure, but its folksy arrangement - centering on a gentle fiddle line and sweet chorus harmony -- helps it go down smoothly. The title track, by Lucinda Williams, is one of a few covers -- including Neil Young's environmental opus "Comes a Time" and Dave Carter's creation story "Gentle Arms of Eden" -- sure to be hotly debated. Each is leisurely paced and prettified, something that comes naturally to the easy-on-the-ear voices of Gilbert and Paul. "What Do I Want What Do I Need", propelled by a riff doubled on guitar and mandolin and a bottom filled by Tom West's Hammond, shows these guys can rock. In "This Morning I am Born Again", Woody Guthrie's timely lyrics are well served by Slaid Cleaves' melody and a bluegrass gospel setting. The close harmony, and more great mandolin work by Duke Levine, make this a standout track. The final cut, a vocal duet of Van Morrison's "Comfort You," brings home the theme of this loosely conceptual CD. However the troubles of the world leave you feeling, this album will leave you feeling better.
© David Kleiner

David Kleiner interviews Ellis Paul & Vance Gilbert!! - click here

Ellis Paul's Website Vance Gilbert's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Citizen of the World (RealAudio)

Eric Bibb "Natural Light", EarthBeat! Records R273830, 2003

Eric Bibb’s voice wraps around the blues like Hawaiian Tropic on a sun-warmed thigh. He caresses his phrasing the way Carlos Santana plays guitar -- so sensually that it should be R-rated. Bibb’s stellar pipes play rough-edged but gentle, melodic but manly, playful but with just the barest hint of menace. It’s a marvelous voice -- ringing as true as rain on the roof. Some of his songs on "Natural Light" are classic Bibb -- with minimal musical backing setting up his vocals. Problem is, we have to wait until the fifth song of the CD, Bibb’s own "Guru Man Blues", before we hear that wonderful voice paired with its rightful partner -- a blues song. Two other of Bibb’s songs weigh in with equal bluesy delight, "Right On Time" and "Lucky Man Rag". Unfortunately, most of the other tracks are a mixed bag of pop, funk, jazz and ballads, some written by Bibb, some not. They’re not particularly unpleasant, but it’s like Frank Sinatra singing bluegrass. It just doesn’t make sense. Still, nothing quite prepares us for the CD’s closer, an uptempo, zydeco version of the Jackie Wilson classic, "Higher and Higher", which feels like a size four shoe on a size nine foot. Still, when Eric Bibb is good, he’s very, very good -- and for that we should be very grateful.
© Fred Kraus

Eric Bibb's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Too Much Stuff (RealAudio)

Laurence Juber, "Guitarist", Solid Air SACD 2045, 2003

"Guitarist" is Laurence Juber's third CD of unaccompanied solo guitar since 1999's "LJ Plays the Beatles". This typically well-paced album includes some of Juber's identifiable compositional and performing trademarks, while providing enough twists to distinguish it from his earlier works. "Breaking Point," the opening track, is a bluesy minor piece reminiscent of Doc Watson's earliest recording of "Windy & Warm." On "Green Kitchen" Juber employs some of his characteristic chord progressions, using an ascending bass line to create a sense of movement. The piece's tuneful head also shows the influence of Juber's old boss, Paul McCartney. "Cannery Row" is the disc's most successful realization of Juber's jazzy side, again using ascending chords, this time with treble phrases played over shifting harmonies in the lower register. The ballad "Love at First Sight" boasts a strong melody & evocative minor 4ths. "Catch" is upbeat and jazzy, featuring 3-part playing reminiscent of Martin Taylor, but a bit bluesier and with deeper tonal resonance, due to Juber's choice of a steel-string flattop guitar, as opposed to the dry, punchier tone produced by Taylor's archtops. The CD's longest piece, "Eye of the Storm," has a quiet interlude played on the guitar's bass strings. The album ends with 5 choruses of improvised 12-bar blues, titled "Blues for Now," which features plenty of fat single-string bends - not Juber at his most adventurous, but well-played and very listenable. "Guitarist" is another strong offering from LJ.
© Patrick Ragains

Laurence Juber's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to Cannery Row (RealAudio)

Guster, "Keep it Together", Reprise 48306-2, 2003

The premise behind the band Guster is as old as the dawn of rock 'n roll: two acoustic guitarists and a drummer, sans-bass, getting together in college to coalesce their musical passions by jamming in the dorms and trying their hand at songwriting. Back in 1991, when the bandmates were students at Tufts University and called themselves "Gus", this premise might have seemed a bit tired. Nine years and four albums later, the band's sound is anything but tired, their energized pop-rock gaining momentum as if by fission, and buoyed by a loyal fan base garnered by relentless touring, including a tour with Grammy winner John Mayer last year. With the release of their latest album, "Keep It Together", Guster once again demonstrates why it has such a broad appeal across the age lines, even beyond Gen-X or Y territory. Their sound is an acoustic rhythm backbone provided by guitarists and vocalists Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner, and is distinguished further by their latticed vocals and creative rhythms played on hand drums by Brian Rosenworcel. But the emphasis is on the guitarwork. Miller, who does most of the lyrics for the band, takes acoustic in most of their songs, while Gardner switches between his Gibson SST and different electrics. The album is an eclectic mix, less barebones than their previous releases and masterminded by Yo La Tengo's producer Roger Moutenot, with cameos from Ben Kweller and Josh Rouse. "Keep It Together" has a lilting pace, while the fast, electronically synthesized "Red Oyster Cult" is an intense tribute to some of the surreal sounds that emerged from the late '60s. In the autobiographical "Homecoming King", Miller writes about going "back to Massachusetts" "into the arms of 1994" (1994 was the year the band's first album was released). "Jesus on the Radio" is the most "acoustic" piece on the album, featuring not only two acoustic guitars a la CSN&Y, but also integrating banjo. The work that the band put into the album (they spent more time in the studio than any previous release) has obviously paid off. The album fits well into their library, but they experiment with new styles too. Guster has clearly evolved from its days as Gus. They have gone from a basic premise to a band with one of the most developed rock sounds around.
© Eric Thomas

Guster's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Diane (RealAudio)

Don Ross, "Robot Monster", Narada 72435-92104-2-1, 2003

Don't ask how, just sit, listen, and feel it. This is the unstated mantra of Don Ross' newest album "Robot Monster." Since the late 90's I've been listening closely to what Ross has "discovered" and this album features some of the most innovative guitar solos ever produced. Here, Ross fuses classic, funk, and jazz, resulting in a remarkable blend of rhythm, harmonics, melody, and did I forget to mention acoustic insanity! Ross is correct in seeing himself first as a composer and then as a player. Each one of the 12 tunes has a strong musical foundation, and the listener - while taken aback because of Ross' sheer virtuosity - is easily pulled into the music itself. Yet this album, maybe more so than Ross' previous albums, features a very spontaneous element, most visible on "Dracula and Friends, Part One". Inspired by the drummer Buddy Miles, Ross composed this funky piece backstage one night. I know, I know, I'm using clichés, but the unstoppable basslines truly do defy what is humanly possible. "Elevation Music," one of my favorite compositions here, has this gorgeous open, silky sound to it. Hints of David Crosby's alternate tunings come through, and the listener is lost in the very movement of melody. The piece opens with a fully realized intro and then bridges into a set of mind-bending bass-slaps. But we've already gone way too far. For the first piece, "Robot Monster," with its frenzied onslaught of bass progressions and harmonics, will literally make your jaw drop. Also featured here is Ross' impressive studio work, which showcases Colleen Allen, Jordan O'Conner, Matthew Shawn Fleming, Andrew Craig, and Christoph Bendel. Though I am more sympathetic to Ross' solo work, these pieces offer a nice contrast to Ross' signature guitar compositions.
© Bernard Richter

Don Ross' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Robot Monster (RealAudio)

Larry Coryell, Badi Assad & John Abercrombie, "Three Guitars", Chesky JD248, 2003

Recorded at St. Peter's Church, Chelsea, New York City in December 2002, "Three Guitars" brings together, for the first time, Larry Coryell and John Abercrombie, both icons of the fusion era, and Badi Assad, a young, innovative and eccentric talent from Brazil. Besides Assad's classically influenced guitar playing, she contributes body and mouth percussion, her ethereal vocals, kalimba, and copper flute. Solos throughout are brief but passionate, fueled by burgeoning musical relationships. Where Coryell is aggressive or prone to hypnotic riffs, Abercrombie is fluid and melodic, the juxtaposition creating a fine balance. Each artist contributes original compositions, the album commencing with "Seu Jorge E Dona Ica", a piece co-written by Assad. The listener is introduced to Assad through her kalimba playing, but she soon picks up the guitar. What follows is a tentative and delicate performance of a lovely melody. Further along, the trio picks up the tempo. One can almost see the smiles breaking on their faces in anticipation of the musical journey they have begun. The song concludes with Assad's vocal flying high above the guitars, and Coryell and Abercrombie looking up, chasing Assad and each other like birds, round and round in a flurry of notes. Pure joy.
© Chip O'Brien

Chesky Records Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to New Lute Interlude (streaming mp3)

Chris Daniels, The Kings & Friends, "The Spark", MoonVoyageRecords CD77626, 2003

Chris Daniels makes records like Duke Ellington conducted a big band: it swings! Billed as "Kings and Friends," Chris Daniels hosts a rootsy rockin' party and we're invited. Inspired by the guitarists Daniels worshiped in his youth, namely Taj Mahal, Mississippi John Hurt, and John Sebastian, the veteran singer songwriter joyfully returns to his unplugged beginnings bolstered by a dream team of musicians. Featuring mandolin/violinist Sam Bush, keyboardist Bill Payne (Little Feat), singers Mollie O'Brien, Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield, Poco), Mark Oblinger (Firefall), Hazel Miller, guitarists Sam Broussard, Sonny Landreth Tony Furtado, trumpeter Tony Klatka (Blood, Sweat & Tears), Daniels brilliantly distills jazz, blues, soul, country, folk, Latin, bluegrass, and pop. "Kelly Jean" breezes along by way of Daniels' devil-may-care inflections and Bush's jazzy solos. The opening cut "50/50," spotlighting a dirty slide break by Landreth, effortlessly splices big band horn arrangements with old school swamp funk. In the spirit of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan, Daniels' venture into bop brims with vibrancy, leading a call and response chorus of "when you say jump, jump, jump/I'll say how high, high, high" with the verve of a man who's been there a few times himself. Kip Kuepper's melodic upright bass, Bill Pontarelli's sexy clarinet riffs, and Nelson Hinds' playful trombone solos embellish Daniels' libidionus wordplay for the ragtime "Tuesday Man." Miller growls, howls, and swoons on the sexy "I'm Still Looking," another cut with depth, intrigue, and beauty. Daniels' acoustic guitar and Furtado's eccentric electric slide playing forge an engaging dialogue between each verse of "If I'd Only Taken You Dancing", anticipating an irresistible melody in the chorus. The Kings' rhythm section shines too. Bassist Bro Lege, keyboardist Dean LeDoux, guitarist Bones Jones, drummer Randy Amen, and Jim Waddell and Doody Abrahamson's horns embody ensemble sensibilities, never stepping in the way of the singer, song, or soloists. Lege employs his low B string at all the right moments and Amen's rim shots and snare fills are precise and soulful. Judging by the hearty grooves, smart licks, and pleasant motifs, Daniels and company had a blast on this date. And Daniels' steel playing is exemplary as well, emphasizing the age old credo "it's not what you play: it's how you play it." Call it a "Spark" if you will...
© Tom Semioli

Chris Daniels' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to 50/50 (RealAudio)

Jessica Papkoff, "Impressions", Fretgirl Records FGR 8643, 2002

It's astounding to think that just a few generations ago, there were a handful of classical guitarists who could walk through a program as varied as Villa-Lobos, Poulenc, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Now, the pool of talent on classical guitar is vast and deep. Jessica Papkoff is one such guitarist, and this - her first solo recording - won Acoustic Guitar Magazine's 2003 Homegrown CD Award. The winner is no flash in the pan - she has considerable academic and professional experience behind her. Papkoff says that the disc is a tribute to the great French composer Claude Debussy. The recording quality is excellent, but it's Papkoff's fine playing which deserves the credit. Papkoff's playing throughout is thoughtful, and she reveals considerable skill, whether chording, running through arpeggios, or finding the right space within the moment. She treats a trio of preludes by Villa-Lobos with the sensitivity and passion they deserve. Her Dake Traphagen guitar brings fullness to the variety of textures Papkoff paints through the program. "Homenaje" by Manuel de Falla rushes in and out with Spanish force. Poulenc's "Sarabande for Guitar" is just lovely. The most interesting piece of the CD is Debussy's "Syrinx". Papkoff renders its quirky undulation beautifully, finding the right pace to its undulating atonality. Papkoff shimmers throughout three movements of Abel Carlevaro's "Preludios Americanos", romping through the "Campo", while rendering the "Scherzino" with both technique and interpretive charm. My only complaint about the disk is that it's a mere 32 minutes long. Hopefully Jessica Papkoff will release another one soon.
© Kirk Albrecht

Jessica Papkoff's Website Buy it here
Listen to Campo (streaming mp3)

Nadaka, "Living Colours", Rain Tree Records, 2003

Nadaka's plucky and youthful expatriation from Canada to India as a teen in order to immerse himself in the culture seems to have metaphorically foretold his subsequent musical explorations. He has delved not only into Indian musicology, but has also tinkered some technical innovations with the western guitar in order to adapt the instrument to accommodate microtonal scales of a hybridized musical style between Western and Indian traditions. As John McLaughlin had also found with his groundbreaking acoustic fusion group Shakti, the challenge of such hybridization is twofold. One is to expand the range of the guitar from 12 fixed Western semitones to an Indianized scale of 22 intervals within the octave, intervals intimately accessible to each other via the slurs and trills that define classical Indian music. Another challenge is to channel the music to a meditative drone, characteristically based on perfect 5ths rather than the tuning in 4ths as done by Western guitarists. Nadaka's own revolutionary solution was to create a guitar with a scalloped neck, mobile frets like those of a sitar, tuned to perfect 5ths. Scalloping involves carving the fretboard so that the left-hand fingers do not actually touch the fretboard, and so permitting an exaggerated string stretch. Pure gearheadedness? Not on your life... the music on "Living Colours" stands testament that the carpentry is done truly in service to the music, the music at once virtuosic, complex, and contemplative. Nadaka owes a debt to his classically trained Indian collaborators, the five Basavaraj Brothers (on flute, violin, sitar, tabla, mridangam, ghatam and kanjira) for certifying the excellence of this recording, and he seems to reciprocate by assuring the spotlight falls broadly over all players rather than to capitalize a self-indulgence as McLaughlin was wont to do in Shakti. The parallels with Shakti's music are inevitable still, and though Nadaka's is a more restrained sound reaching more for beauty than flash, on "Surya Shakti" Nadaka also demonstrates a rapidfire surety that recalls McLaughlin's gift for blazing arpeggios.
© Alan Fark

Nadaka's Website Buy it at Rain Tree Records
Listen to Hamsa Leela (streaming mp3)

Steve Baughman, "Old World Christmas", Solid Air Records SACD 2038, 2003

The art of arrangement is a skill learned through practice. Steve Baughman's new disc "Old World Christmas" clearly demonstrates the artist's inventive and insightful abilities as both a performer and an arranger. Featuring guitar arrangements of traditional Christmas works, this CD is a must-have for the guitar lover seeking musical holiday ambiance which not only sets the mood, but does it with virtuosity. Performing on both 6 and 12 string guitars, Baughman's playing is wonderful. His choice of traditional Christmas favorites includes the expected and the obscure. From the Medley: "The First Joy of Mary/Shepherds", "Shake of Your Drowsy Sleep/Gloucester Wassail" to a marvelous setting of "Joy to the World" the listener is treated to a top-notch performance. Other favorites of note include a beautiful rendition of "Deck the Halls", "Away in the Manger" as well as "O' Little Town of Bethlehem". The recording quality is very nice. The guitar parts are clear with just enough reverb to imitate a small warm recital hall. Baughman's inclusion in the liner notes of tuning schemes he uses, as well as historic information on the origin of each melody is very insightful. With the holidays almost upon us, this disc will be well-received by you and your holiday guests.
© Philip Hemmo

Steve Baughman's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource

Chris Grace, "Compulsion", Eucommia Records, 2002

Chris Grace should be on the radio. His alternative pop-rock stylings have all the hook and drive that the best in the genre have to offer. Effect-laden electric guitars combined with Chris' acoustic strumming and unrestrained, heartfelt vocals make for a catchy album that's difficult to take out of the player and even harder to get out of your head. "Compulsion" is a label-quality production. The band is incredibly tight and the mix brings out even the subtlest textural nuances from electric guitarists Kiyanu Kim and Jeff Thall. Chris Grace is an electric singer-songwriter and he explores the universal subjects of relationships going south, lovers past, and breaking hearts. While these are the major themes of countless works of art, Chris Grace is personal enough to be believable and general enough to let the listener in.
© Rick Gebhard

Chris Grace's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Set Up the Band (streaming mp3)

Colin Brooks, "Chippin' Away at the Promised Land", Brockswood Records CB 1001, 2002

Colin Brooks swings for the fences and hits it out of the park with this release. It's a roots project with a pop slant. The album is a cohesive, captivating experience, based on a flawless mix that highlights his gritty, Shawn Mullins-style voice. That's not to take anything away from Brooks. In fact, his voice strikes this reviewer as less posed, more natural. And the mix is awesome. Studio pros take note. The first cut, "Drive Me Home," sounds like the intended hit single, and in a more perfect radio world it would be. The next song, "Show Me the Way," features a beautiful, ephemeral, vocal chorus. Every guitar lick fits perfectly, a virtue that continues throughout the CD. "Nobody" evokes the classic jazz feel of a song like Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue"-no mean feat. "Sugar" is a tough song: "Sugar wants a cowboy," but barbiturates will do. Check out the killer swamp-ass lead guitar on this one. The title cut, "Chippin Away at the Promised Land," showcases Brooks' roots cred over a dirty slide guitar. Only the cover of Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" misses the mark that Brooks himself establishes on the other cuts. "Lay Me Down" closes the record on an intimate acoustic note, with a naked, Greg Brown-style vocal presence that lets you down easy. The album includes cameo appearances by the renowned bassist Tony Levin and drummer Jerry Marotta. And hats off to mixer Todd Vos. Great cover shot, too. Rarely do indie albums put the whole package together as well as this. Colin Brooks is the real deal.
© Steve Klingaman

Colin Brooks's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Drive Me Home (RealAudio)


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