Minor 7th Nov/Dec 2007: Ben Harper, Joe Bonamassa, Tom Hemby, Andy McKee, Sandy Prager, Susan Levine, Jeffrey McFadden, Michael Fix, Firefall, Terri Hendrix, Michael Chapdelaine, A.J. Roach
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

November/December, 2007

Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, "Lifeline," Virgin Records 2007

Harper and his bandmates look both classy and tough on the noir cover of "Lifeline." Harper stands a bit in front, but shoulder to shoulder with the Innocent Criminals. So it is with "Lifeline," the band album. Harper gets first billing; but the band -- quite rightly -- gets equal billing. Together, they bring a certain surprising elegance to their merger of soul and '60s music. Recorded analog -- without the use of computers or music production software -- by a band at the peak of its tightness and exhaustion after nine months of touring, "Lifeline" truly sounds warm and relaxed. Harper's acoustic opens the first track, "Fight Outta You" a tune that nods to Bob ("they'll… stone you, then turn and disown you"). The band joins in quickly, supporting the transformation of an angry song into one about turning the other cheek ("I'd rather find out who you are / than who you're not"). Instruments often double one another to keep things swinging. The rhythm section is tighter than Incan brick. "In the Colors" is danceable, in no small part thanks to Juan Nelson's bass. Listen to the band during its short interlude. BHIC put their own stamp on a string of music archetypes. The Beatlesque "Younger Than Today" is lovely, a tender parting song. "Needed You Tonight," brings to mind Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin. "Put It On Me" opens with a "Tighten Up" guitar lick and goes on to earn its soul creds. "Heart of Matters" builds to a convincing "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" finish. Then "Lifeline," the solo album begins. Paris Sunrise #7 is a slide piece played in an open E tuning (E-B-E-G#-B-E) on a Weissenborn guitar. The title track closes, a downtempo and desperate plea to a lover, played only by Harper and his guitar. These pretty numbers are a coda, bonus tracks on an album that's otherwise all about the groove.
© David Kleiner

Ben Harper's Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to "Fight Outta You" (mp3)

Joe Bonamassa, "Sloe Gin," Premier Artists, 2007

The Allman Brothers, Johnny Winter, SRV, Eric Johnson... you would have to be some left-brained geek not to be aware of the kind of intense mojo these guys have generated through the years. You can add one more name to this revered list: Joe Bonamassa. Bonamassa has forged a rock-solid power blues resumé with his five prior releases, but on "Sloe Gin" he does something a little different... he scales back, if only halfway. In the liner notes, Bonamassa says "I wanted to experiment with acoustic textures that I first discovered listening to Rod Stewart's first album. I think the heavy blues with acoustic mix well together." On "Sloe Gin" that is the understatement of the year made clear by Bonamassa's clever pitting of acoustic against electric tracks, like yin and yang. About half the tunes on this CD are originals, half covers by artists such as John Mayall, Chris Whitley and Bad Company. It's appropriate that the latter's "Seagull" is included on this release because there are few voices on the planet that can match Paul Rodgers', and Bonamassa proves here that he's one of those. And neither could anyone ever dispute his virtuosity on electric guitar -- check out his machine-gun fire solo on "Black Night," which shares an incredibly filial similarity to Eric Johnson's phrasing and speed. Too often, though, when players with a reputation for power blues pick up an acoustic guitar, they fall short, as did Warren Haynes on "Live at Bonnaroo." But Bonamassa's acoustic work oozes as much intensity as if it were electric, as on John Martyn's "Jelly Roll." It's true that his die-hard electric fans may be left wanting by acoustic numbers such as "Richmond," "Sloe Gin" and "Around the Bend," but that's their problem. Joe Bonamassa has proven on "Sloe Gin" that he's not above exploring a more mature, more restrained vibe that amazes because he's purposely capped some of the pyrotechnics in favor of style.
© Alan Fark

Joe Bonamassa's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Jelly Roll" (mp3)

Tom Hemby, "Chasing the Wind," Autumn Records, 2007

Tom Hemby may be one of the best guitarists you've heard, but never heard of. A long-time session player in Nashville, Hemby played on the most recent Michael McDonald project and he has produced two albums for Grammy-winning Gospel singer BeBe Winans. He has recorded or toured with dozens of big-name acts like Vince Gill, the Judds, Barry Manilow, and Martina McBride, to name a few. It's no wonder -- he's a fine player with creative juices flowing, crafting accessible yet sophisticated textures throughout this disc. This is no solo guitar project, but Hemby overlays percussion, bass, and synthesizers. He obviously has a good feel for arrangements that work. The opening cut, "Pull a Few Strings", features some deft playing, and a funky snare drum beat which cooks. The title track, "Chasing the Wind", is an upbeat jazzer. "Requiem for a Guitar Player" has shades of the sounds Pat Metheny invoked with Charlie Haden on their duet CD a few years back "Under the Missouri Sky" -- lush, mournful, contemplative. On "Mingo Rain", Hemby lays down a gentle fingerpicked melody, while guitar master Phil Keaggy intersperses soaring electric runs as the water falls. "A Sad Goodbye" is given a elegiac edge by a synthesizer backdrop while Hemby plays slow and soulful. It's a slow samba for "Moonlight of Brazil", shining with a subtle radiance. All the songs on "Chasing the Wind" reveal a player at home in multiple styles, slow or fast. Maybe more people should know who Tom Hemby is.
© Kirk Albrecht

Tom Hemby's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Pull a Few Strings" (mp3)
Listen to Tom Hemby at our podcast

Andy McKee, "The Gates of Gnomeria," CandyRat Records, 2007

Andy McKee plays standard and baritone steel-string guitars in a variety of tunings. This CD includes nine original compositions and two covers. McKee emphasizes texture, rhythm, and subtle chord movement, although he can certainly give a strong melody its due, as with his interpretation of Toto's "I'll Be Over You." He opens the disc with "The Gates of Gnomeria," playing a drone over his own melodic harp guitar bass, before moving into a section featuring transitional melodic statements and tapping on the guitar. "7-14" introduces tension with some dissonant strumming -- but just enough to make the listener take notice. Schmidt returns with his bass for "A Sphere," one of the disc's most successful tracks. "Ouray" recalls Jorma Kaukonen's "Water Song," just as "Dependent Arising" brings to mind the harmonic approaches of 80s bands like Toto and Asia, although neither tune is imitative. Bjork's "Venus as a Boy," here retitled "Venus as a Girl," is multitracked and has a very different feel from the rest of the disc. One might best consider this piece an experiment, although McKee does a good job layering the different parts. He winds up with "Ebony Coast," played on baritone guitar, incorporating tapping, slapping, and a strong melody. Don Ross recently wrote that Andy McKee "creates sonic architecture worthy of the great modern composers for any instrument." That's a strong recommendation, so give this young lion a listen.
© Patrick Ragains

Andy McKee's Website Buy it at CandyRat Records
Listen to "A Sphere" (mp3)

Sandy Prager, "Beyond Borders," Fo-Pa Records, 2007

Sandy Prager's "Beyond Borders" features some of the most brilliantly conceived classical and 12-string jazz guitar playing heard in recent years. The prodigious guitarist has studied at both the University of Miami and the Berklee College of Music and is currently teaching, composing, and performing in the Boston area. While often compared to the iconoclastic artist Ralph Towner, Prager's influences are as diverse and multifaceted as the rich acoustic improvisations he creates. The strength of this album, however, revolves not only around the guitarist's formidable command of his instrument, but also in the two exceptional musicians that support him. The recording features Phil Scarff on alto and soprano saxophones and Rich Appleman on upright bass. Think of Oregon without the percussion, where the intimate trio setting creates a delicate and empathetic interplay between the musicians that brings to mind the classic recordings of the Jimmy Giuffre Three featuring Jim Hall. While the emphasis of this album is on jazz improvisation, the release features twelve captivating compositions that always remain interesting upon each repeated listening. There simply is not a weak link on this eclectic collection of innovative sonic tapestries. On the playful calypso, "Bay Street," the group begins with unison melodic phrases followed by intricate soloing by each musician. The ballad, "The Way Home," features Appleman's wonderful bass tones where his melodic accompaniment is equally as interesting as his passionate soloing. Another standout is "Baile De Los Muertos," where Prager unleashes some dazzling 12-string work reminiscent of the great Brazilian guitarist Egberto Gismonti. On "Blues for Indira" Phil Scarff offers some haunting Middle Eastern melodies. "Beyond Borders" pushes the parameters of contemporary improvised music and is highly recommended for those wanting to hear alluring compositions accompanied by adventurous playing.
© James Scott

Sandy Prager's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Suit and Tired" (mp3)
Listen to Sandy Prager at our podcast

Susan Levine, "Atlas," Riverwide Records, 2007

A lot of folks will record an album laden with their genre's superstars and too often, the songwriting and delivery by the featured artist doesn't hold up. Not here. Not even close. Yeah, yeah, there's Jennifer Kimball on vocals and Mark Erelli on guitars and vocals, but dayum (three syllables, ya'll), Levine rocks it with powerful vocals a la Dolly Parton and Nancy Griffith and like those two, she can really write. There are lots of acoustic instruments to provide the center (mandolin, guitar, banjo and more) plus bass, drums and hooky electric guitar to provide the drive. Levine hits the ground running with the opening "1000 Open Doors:" "Ain't life like a hole in your pocket / you don't know where everything goes / keep throwing in nickels and quarters / and minutes and hours / when all you can feel is the cold through the holes." Now don't you want to settle in and savor every last word of this album? "Leaving" starts with her simple rhythmic guitar strum. Musically, it could lead anywhere and with the addition of pedal steel and banjo, it turns country but not the kind you'd hear on mainstream radio. It's more grounded and with her very capable songwriting chops, is so much more. The standout cut is "Wings," a compelling story song that should be required listening for any beginning songwriter. It's got a cool electric guitar groove and in the background, a banjo -- a great arrangement that fits the song well. She didn't write "Killing the Blues" but it sounds like she did, with those biting, melancholy words. Almost everything she does has that melancholy feel and while the bitterness lends itself to some great songs, a little honey would have provided some variety. The Stephen Foster tune "Hard Times" gets grand treatment with an instrumental build worthy of any great rock or gospel tune. There's a bazillion instruments and voices and it all culminates in a finale worthy of any good album.
© Jamie Anderson

Susan Levine's Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to "Michael" (mp3)

Jeffrey McFadden, "Agustín Barrios: Guitar Music 3," Naxos Recordings, 2007

In 1994 the record label Naxos began work on what has become the most significant and ambitious classical guitar recording project in history: a complete collection of all major guitar works spanning the entire history of the instrument. In doing so, they have sought out the best performers from around the globe and have assigned each of them composers on which to focus. This year the great Canadian guitarist and pedagogue Jeffrey McFadden completed his most recent addition to this collection. This recording is the third in a series of discs highlighting the vast output from the Paraguayan guitarist-composer Agustín Barrios. McFadden is known the world over as an extremely cerebral player, ever in search of perfection, constantly experimenting, scrutinizing, and revising. The result is an impossibly rich tone, which is then placed delicately within subtle, heart-wrenching turns of phrases. Having had attended his live performances, as well as his master classes in the past, I can tell you first hand that his reputation is well deserved. And there could be no better application of McFadden's talents than to the music of Barrios, which is characterized by lyrical melodies which wind through the entire spectrum of emotions. Further evidence of McFadden's academic approach to music can be found in his many brilliant arrangements, two of which can be found on this recording. These particular pieces, "Caazapá" and "Tarantella," stand out as being among the most impassioned on the disc. The music of Barrios is extremely accessible and thus appeals to a wide musical audience. That, in addition to McFadden's sensitivity and attention to detail, ensures that this disc will find itself a favorite in countless recording collections.
© Timothy Smith

Jeffrey McFadden's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Caazapá" (mp3)

Michael Fix, "Rewind," 2007

How do you release a greatest hits CD when you admit you've never had a hit? If you're Australian fingerstyle guitarist Michael Fix, you find a bunch of songs you've recorded over the years you really like, re-record them, and put them together on one CD. So we have "Rewind", where Fix takes us through the past 16 years and 7 solo guitar records, and we get to hear the ways he has bent, slapped, plucked and massaged the 6-string -- good for us. Fix isn't one of those names which pop up in conversations about fine guitarists in the U.S., and that's a shame, because he is one (though if you live in Europe, you know him). Fix has taken some pointers from Australian blazer Tommy Emmanuel. The CD opens with "Gully Breeze", where Emnanuel's style and chops are nicely refined with Fix's own accents. On "Bush Bash", he flatpicks up a storm while keeping a groove moving throughout. "Two Left Feet" wobbles and weaves as a testimony to his own inability to dance. Some fine Chet Atkins / Merle Travis thumb-picking drives "Something's Cooking". Included on the disc are two new compostions: "Hobbity Hoi", a rollicking rag which shows off picking and single-note prowess, as well as some playful time changes, and "Rewind the Years", which fittingly closes the record, as it was written to celebrate his parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Perhaps my favorite piece is "Sunrise over Alice", an ethereal wisp of a song with didgeridoo player William Barton adding his own native tones. Each song on the disc is played so cleanly, and like Emmanuel, melody always drives the song, never merely chops (though they are in evident display).
© Kirk Albrecht

Michael Fix's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Hobbity Hoi" (mp3)
Listen to Michael Fix at our podcast

Firefall, "Colorado to Liverpool", Winged Horse Records, 2007

We are living in a new era of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Wherein the original recordings of the Fab Four were once ubiquitous (especially on classic rock radio) and considered untouchable, nowadays their remarkable canon has become a bottomless repertory from which a wide array of artists can choose to reinterpret. Witness the Circue de Soliel's "LOVE" (done with Beatle approval) or the successful film soundtrack "I Am Sam," or even the attention afforded the dud of a film "Across The Universe" -- which, despite its tepid storyline, contains stellar renderings from Bono, Joe Cocker, and The Secret Machines. It's fitting that two members of Firefall, a 70s super-group noted for their hits "You Are The Woman," "Just Remember I Love You" and vocal harmonies that matched their much acclaimed contemporaries Fleetwood Mac and the Beach Boys, have upped the ante with an spirited acoustic collection which cleverly highlights some of the Beatles lesser known compositions. Jock Bartley and Steven Weinmeister make the wise decision not to imitate the Beatles, nor their sacred records, but rather render the songs in their own voices and style -- not an easy task for these avowed Beatle-maniacs. "Within Without You," George Harrison's ground-breaking contribution to Sgt. Pepper, is recast as a psychedelic dirge with a deliberately slow tempo abetted with understated yet tasteful tabla, udu, and percussion by guest Christian Teele. From "Help" the often overlooked "You're Gonna Lose That Girl" gets a breezy make-over (Jimmy Buffett anyone?) as Bartley and Weinmeister's raspy harmonies intertwine while the lads cop a bluesy twist (nylon strings?) on Harrison's brilliant-three-note solo. The country honk that the Beatles attempted in '65 for "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" is fully realized as Firefall stretches the solo sections and captures more of an Americana vibe -- perhaps due in no small part to the fact that the musicians hail from Colorado. With cascading guitar motifs and subtle mandolin accompaniment you'll hardly miss the chamber group George Martin scored for "Eleanor Rigby" -- proving that you can play anything on guitar if you put your mind to it. The only knock on this collection is that it's not longer, though eleven tracks was standard fare back in the day. Firefall's effort will appeal to Beatle fans old and new, and emerges as a fine tutorial for gigging singers/guitarists who wish to embellish their repertoire with some of the greatest and most timeless pop songs ever written. Perhaps it's not that far from Liverpool to Colorado after all.
© Tom Semioli

Firefall's Website Buy it Amazon.com
Listen to "I'll Be Back" (mp3)

Terri Hendrix, "The Spiritual Kind", Wilory Records, 2007

My take on Terri Hendrix before now revolved around her great sense of humor and fruitful musical partnership with Lloyd Maines. Both are on display to great effect on "The Spiritual Kind." Hendrix' humor works because it reveals truth in the familiar. Upset about the loss of a friendship, the speaker in "Things Change" searches the house for a tape of her favorite singer, "As if her voice could bring me peace / And as if … I even had a cassette player / That worked anymore." Producer Maines is all over the CD, playing everything with strings. Check out the double-tracked fingerpicking on "No Love in Texas" and the guitar duet underpinning "Things Change." And there is much more to Hendrix than I had supposed. The opening tracks offer a spirited and lighthearted take on the spiritual theme of the title track. Then things shift into high gear with Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty." Hendrix reveals this paean to America's fruitfulness and the migrants without whom that fruit would rot on the vine to be a revolutionary declaration. The band kicks in after the first verse propelled by mandolin (here and elsewhere, it could be a Papoose), an instrument used to great effect throughout the album. (Listen to the way the mandolin sound helps drive the rocking "Jim Thorpe's Blues.) Hendrix' harmonica dominates the second half of the cut. She's been working on her harp playing and it shows (note the lovely solo in "If I had a Daughter"). "Mood Swing" finds Hendrix swinging hard and scatting in a tour-de-force tribute to the songstresses she admires. The standout track is "Soul to Soul." Note the mandolin's interplay with guitar in the intro, and later with fiddle in the interlude. Hendrix's voice here is breathy, insistent, sexy. The hook, "Stay, don't walk away," is irrepressible. So is Ms. Hendrix. "The Spiritual Kind," touching on the spiritual, political, and the musical, covers a lot of ground. It works because it always stays grounded.
© David Kleiner

Terri Hendrix's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Life's a Song" (mp3)

Michael Chapdelaine, "Land of Enchantment", 2007

Currently head of guitar studies at University of New Mexico, Michael Chapdelaine studied with Andres Segovia, has a wealth of experience interpreting classical and pop music, and composes in both genres. On this solo CD he focuses on an accessible pop sound, incorporating substantial classical, jazz and blues influences. Plus, his technique is flawless. The result is a very rich listening experience. "Rain Dance" is typical of Chapdelaine's approach, as he dives head first into a chordal groove, soon making a transition to rapid single-string runs. Whenever Chapdelaine repeats a theme or motive, he smartly varies it each time through. "Red Sand, Homage to the American Indian," with its three distinct movements, comes closest to a classical suite. "Land of Enchantment" features a strong melody with a call and response, which the guitarist executes by varying his right-hand attack to distinguish the timbre of the two voices. Chapdelaine shows off his jazzy side with "Blue Chile," including sensuous bends in every register -- he really has a ball on this one. "Cowboy Waltz" is an instrumental rendering of an original song with lyrics; Chapdelaine expertly places the tune's charming melody front and center. The classical-sounding "Requiem for Geronimo" closes the CD with a pensive but multi-textured tribute. Michael Chapdelaine belongs in the top tier of fingerstyle guitarists for his originality, intelligent approach, and accessibility. Both guitarists and casual listeners will love his music.
© Patrick Ragains

Michael Chapdelaine's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Blue Chile" (mp3)

A.J. Roach, "Revelation", Waterbug Records, 2007

A.J. Roach and the devil must at least be acquainted. "Revelation" is a catalog of sin delivered with equal parts Appalachian echoes and alt-folk sensibilities. The opener, "Clinch River Blues" is a toe-tapper about suicide propelled by Stephan LaMotte's unrelenting drumming and darkened by Roach's sawtooth vocal. Alisa Rose's fiddle punches the rhythm, responds to Roach, then breaks out trading leads with Adam Roszkiewicz' mandocello. The spirited "Devil May Dance" uncovers the adultery of a lover "sincere as any neon sign." Roach multi-tracks his voice over a bottom filled with Charlie Rowan's swirling C3 organ. "Fashionistas" deconstructs pride with a stark tale about sophisticates in "their short summer dresses" and "freshly showered messes" and the men who show up on their doorstep. It all seems so civilized, but it's nothing more than "a cry for help." "Chemicals," the alcoholic's 23rd Psalm, prays "whiskey's my shepherd… It maketh me lie down in a strange woman's bed." The interplay between guitar and mandolin adds a touch of tenderness for the "dirty and desperate." There's more tenderness in "Hazel Blue," a love song from one wasted lover-with a heart of "glass that's broken"-to another. Listen for the glockenspiel and the acoustic's harmony notes behind the guitar picking. Sweet. The title track tries to resolve matters by comparing the relatively slight-and generally self-victimizing-sins of the record's disenfranchised characters to the "rich man who wages war on his lowest servant." Its dueling mandolins and banjo swell into a bigtime Salvation Army band with off-kilter trumpet, accordion, organ, and rousing harmony. But the victory of the good is short-lived. The devil (a reprise of "Devil May Dance") still lurks, returning briefly to close the record. AJ Roach's second release is as tuneful as it is dark and a true revelation. Finely etched lyrics and musical adventurism in service of song make "Revelation" the best album I've reviewed this year. How well does A.J. Roach know the devil?
© David Kleiner

A.J. Roach's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Chemicals" (mp3)

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