Minor 7th March/April 2005: Bruce Mathiske, The Duhks, Artie Traum, Matthew McAllister, Redbird, Paul Curreri, Lucas Michailidis, Kate McDonnell, Vance Gilbert, Cardinal Trait, Fred Niznik, Joe Rohan
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

March/April, 2005

Bruce Mathiske, "Guitar Genius", Mathiske Music BM041, 2004

Australian fingerstylist Bruce Mathiske plays nylon and steel string guitars (both 6- and 12-string), composes and interprets others' works - all masterfully. Lennon and McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby" opens the CD. Beginning a musical program with any tune in a minor key is risky enough and, for such an iconic song, inevitably invites comparisons with the original recording. Yet Mathiske pulls it off. In this solo performance he employs techniques used throughout his repertoire, including alternating and walking bass lines, double stops, arpeggiated sweeps, artificial harmonics and robust strumming. The arrangement owes very little to the Beatles' recording, but it succeeds on Mathiske's own terms. He doubletracks guitars on several originals, including "Arrival" and "The Top," playing supporting parts on 6- or 12-string. Other tracks include bass, percussion and didgeridoo in various combinations. He offers an emotional solo interpretation of "What a Wonderful World" and upbeat versions of "They Can't Take That away From Me," Ellington and Tizol's "Caravan," Paul Simon's "Gumboots" and Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas." He plays "Caravan" noticeably faster than its original tempo, but it's bound to be a highlight of his live shows. He closes the disc with his own wistful "Soft Day in Athlone." While Mathiske shows some similarities to other players (e.g. Jerry Reed and Marcel Dadi on "The Top"), he mainly impresses me as a well-rounded musician rather than a guitar stylist. As such, "Guitar Genius" is quite varied for an instrumental guitar recording. I've gone back to it repeatedly and shared it with both guitarists and nonmusicians. I can't praise Bruce Mathiske too highly and hope to hear more from him soon.
© Patrick Ragains

Bruce Mathiske's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Eleanor Rigby" (mp3)

The Duhks, "The Duhks", Sugar Hill Records SUG-3997, 2005

Mix together earthy Appalachian, soaring Celtic, and passionate modern singer-songwriter with a touch of acoustic alt-country and you've got this utterly intoxicating band from Winnipeg. Their traditional folk tunes plus a few originals blast out of the speakers with a clearly produced intensity. Air-tight harmony vocals are the focus of many songs including "Death Came A Knockin'." The gospel vocals on "True Religion" will make you shout Amen. They aren't just great singers -- witness the dynamic flatpicking of Jordan McConnell that opens "Gene's Machine," a medley of four instrumentals that also features lightning fast fiddle from Tania Elizabeth and percussion from Scott Senior. He's no basic back beat kinda guy, finding room for syncopation that comfortably settles into unexpected places. Jessica Havey's spirited vocals carry the ghost of Janis Joplin but with more clarity, especially on "Four Blue Walls," Ruth Unger's cutting song about abuse. Leonard Podolak rounds out the ensemble with great old-time banjo. Adding to the variety is a collection of Celtic instrumentals and a Sting song with a reggae beat ("Love is the Seventh Wave"). Bela Fleck and Gary Paczosa produced it all. This is folk music that'll make you levitate with joy.
© Jamie Anderson

The Duhks' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Death Came A Knockin'" (RealAudio)

Artie Traum, "Acoustic Jazz Guitar", Roaring Stream Records RS-J04, 2004

Nowadays contemporary jazz radio programmers would classify this collection as "chill," but guitar legend Artie Traum's legacy is anything but cold, cool, or devoid of warmth. This generous seventy minute retrospective celebrates Traum's decade-plus submergence in the jazz idiom apart from his hallowed folk career which began in the 1960s with his brother Happy. Initially inspired by the 1970's-early 80s golden age of fusion (not a dirty word here) artists Weather Report, Pat Metheny, Acoustic Alchemy, and Earl Klugh, Traum embraces the finer points of the much maligned genre, embracing ensemble playing, solo virtuosity, and state-of-the-art sound recording with equal consideration. Acoustic/roots music fans' jaws will drop when they read the musician credits: The Band's Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson, Bela Fleck, Tony Levin, Steve Swallow, Sam Bush, Jim Weider, and many more are featured. Traum's combination of steel and nylon string guitars glisten on several cuts including a dreamy live reading of "Mysterious Stranger," a decidedly major-key call and response piece entitled "She's Riding Again," and "Modality" which evokes references to Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage," especially in Warren Bernhardt's keyboard chord voicings during the solo sections. "Yankee Stomp" has a Big Pink impression stamped all over it as Dylan's most notorious (and sadly missed) side-men pound a four-to-bar backbeat with wicked solos from Helm on harmonica, Hudson on keyboards, and a drobro wielding Wieder and Traum trading licks as Danko plods away on a muddy low-B string. The triumvirate of Fleck on banjo, Bush on mandolin, and Traum on guitar for the brisk, up-tempo "Butternut" is a once-in-a-lifetime treat, be sure to check out Fleck's rhythm patterns before the solos blow you away. "Dark Passage," a riveting trio combination of Levin and percussionist Dean Sharp features Traum's innovative use of hammer-ons and a nearly buried-in-the-mix atonal string plucking segue which is rendered either below the bridge or above the headstock nut (your guess is as good as mine). Swallow's slightly distorted electric bass provides a blurry complement to Traum's upper register melodies, Josh Colow's acid rock electric guitar licks, and Neal Wilkinson's stern military beat. Given the inherent difficulty of playing jazz on acoustic guitar by way of limited sustain and raised fret-board action, among other things, Traum's mastery is nothing short of amazing. And the kicker is he makes it sound so damn easy!
© Tom Semioli

Artie Traum's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Hot Lunch" (mp3)

Matthew McAllister, "Merula", Natural Studio Records NSR001, 2004

There will soon come the time where I will once again be asked by some curious music lover what classical guitar CD I recommend they buy in order to introduce themselves to the instrument. When that time arrives, Matthew McAllister will be the name that will spring to mind. In his recent release, entitled "Merula," McAllister has produced a disc that features a careful selection of works that serve the dual purpose of complementing each other and representing a variety of composers, time periods, and styles of composition. With the exception of a world premiere recording of Douglas Whates' "Old Photo" and two Ralph Towner pieces, the CD is a veritable "Best of the Classical Guitar", featuring some of the most enduring compositions for the instrument. His interpretations of works such as "Choros No.1" by Villa-Lobos, "Julia Florida" by Barrios, and the notorious and anonymously written "Romanza" are carefully and naturally executed. McAllister is more daring in his performance of the popular "Asturias" by Albéniz, in which he occasionally sacrifices accuracy in order to push the drama to the limit of his abilities. For anyone interested in experiencing the music of the classical guitar, I recommend this disc as it offers an appealing cross-section of the repertoire as well as Matthew McAllister's pleasant interpretations.
© Timothy Smith

Matthew McAllister's Website Buy it at Amazon.com (UK)
Listen to "The Reluctant Bride" (mp3)

Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault, Peter Mulvey, "Redbird", Signature Sounds 1291, 2005

Paul Curreri, "The Spirit of the Staircase", City Salavage Records CSR08, 2004

Put some musicians together in a living room. Spontaneity rules. Familiar tunes get new readings. Little known gems are unearthed. New songs and players arrive on the scene. The fresh sound of live music fills the space. "Redbird" and "The Spirit of the Staircase" capture that magic. Both fine albums were recorded in living rooms. Both feature remarkable singer-songwriters. Both rely on a secret weapon, a gifted guitar player and multi-instrumentalist turned producer who sits in. Yet you're unlikely to find two more disparate records. "Redbird" stands in a long line of projects, star (a folk oxymoron) solo performers collaborating short term. "Super Session," 1968's Bloomfield, Kooper, Stills alliance comes to mind. So does the more recent "Cry, Cry, Cry." That record, despite some terrific cuts, suffered from over production and a tendency to take itself too seriously. "Redbird" avoids those pitfalls by planting itself firmly in the living room. It's a loosey-goosey affair, with good picking, satisfying harmonies, and loads of fun. Recorded live by David "Goody" Goodrich using one stereo microphone and a portable DAT, it has no pretensions beyond four great performers getting together to share, make each other sound better, and enjoy themselves. It works beautifully. Unearthed gems? Start with "Patience," by the late Mark Sandman of Morphine. Then there's Greg Brown's "Ships" and Paul Cebar's "Lovely as the Day is Long," each approached with a light touch. Familiar tunes? Try Dylan's "Buckets of Rain," the swing number "Moonglow," and Tom Waits' "Hold On." Each participant contributes one original, all winners. Goody's instrumental "Redbird Waltz," with Delmhorst fiddling, is one sweet turn around the dance floor. Mulvey's "Ithaca" is a standout, well suited to Delmhorst's voice. On her "Lullaby 101," Mulvey returns the favor, singing resumes, reservoirs, and alibis to sleep. Foucault's "Drunk Lullaby" puts the singer's sharp eye for detail and tuneful growl to great effect. This record's a hoot, a completely laid back affair. "The Spirit of the Staircase," demands more of the listener. Paul Curreri's on the far side of the living room, the new performer on the scene (though this is his third release). Using room and instrument mikes, co-producer and engineer Jeff Romano offers live sound with sonic clarity. Curreri's guitar tracks were recorded first, the drums next. This is not a live recording, but you'll swear differently. The whole affair feels spontaneous. The lovely "Beauty Fades" opens. ("Beauty fades / It goes crackin' and a juttin' / Some folks go slow / Some all of a sudden"). "You Will Look at Me" -- a disarming love song -- closes. These cuts bookend the record in the spirit of Curreri's previous outings: solo, clean, complex southern-fried fingerpicking supporting great conversational vocals and carefully chosen, if not immediately comprehensible, lyrics. If that's not immediately comprehensible, forgive me. This guy is beyond categorization; but going along with the flow provides a sensational ride. Curreri's guitar starts the second cut, but when Spencer Lathrop's funky, shuffling snare breaks in, things really start swinging. Curreri's trademark humor surfaces. ("Cleaning, put the these and those / Out into the this and the that.") Dig the banjo guitar solo. Throughout, Curreri's first band record makes choices as quirky and tasty as the man himself. In "Middledrift's Lament" both Curreri and Romano play sink. "Memory Makes All of This" is a standout, with poetry ("Every burning letter, every wave on its way in / Know I know I'll see you again"), a gorgeous melody over unusual changes, and atmospheric electric guitar from Aaron Evans. You will not hear another record like this anywhere else. So check out both corners of this living room. There's a party going on. © David Kleiner

Redbird's Website | Paul Curreri's Website Buy "Redbird" at Amazon.com | Buy "The Spirit of the Staircase" at Amazon.com
Listen to Redbird's "Ships" (RealAudio)
Listen to Paul Curreri's "Drag Some Revelating" (mp3)

Lucas Michailidis, "Freshwater Road", Move Records MDC 278, 2004

What do you get when you throw together equal parts Michael Hedges and Ed Gerhard, sprinkle in some Chris Proctor, and add a dash of Bill Cooley? Well, it might just sound like Australian fingerstylist Lucas Michailidis on his latest release "Freshwater Road." Following his lyrical and sophisticated initial release "The Offering," Michailidis' most recent musical adventure is a recipe for a tasty guitar stew. It is no wonder the judges at Peter Finger's Open Strings Festival awarded the Aussie top honors in their competition in 2001. He gets us into the groove on the opening cut "Dig This", drawing inspiration from Jimi Hendrix's vocal lead-in to his classic "Fire" ("...now dig this baby"). Lucas channels Michael Hedges in "The Lucky One" and "Walk Your Talk." More than any other two-handed tapper I have heard in recent years, Michailidis gets not only Hedge's harmonic understanding of that idiom, but also its melodic opportunities. He's not just hammering off notes, he's creating intricate yet flowing ideas, meandering in and out of the melody, yet maintaining its anchor to the tune. And in pretty little numbers like "See Saw" and "Alia," he brings the tonal reflection of Ed Gerhard, master of the languid, dripping note. Michailidis draws meaning from each phrase. "The Muse" dangles a droning or alternating bass line behind the weaving treble strings, creating enough aural dissonance to lead us along to the song's conclusion. "Jewels" spanks and shakes; I found myself laughing at its playfulness. "Tailor Made" is an eponymous tribute to another Taylor, the poet laureate of acoustic guitar, James. A surprisingly simple song, it captures the beautiful spirit and playing which characterize the American pop icon who is nonetheless an inspiration to legions of guitar players. This is a fine recording, and if he keeps it up, Michailidis may someday soon find himself an inspiration to others, too.
© Kirk Albrecht

Lucas Michailidis' Website Buy it at Stropes.com
Listen to "The Lucky One" (mp3)

Kate McDonnell, "Where the Mangoes Are", Appleseed Recordings APR1085, 2005

"Where the Mangoes Are" veers between staying and going, past and present, easy love and hard. Its centerpiece, "Mercy," features biting lyrics ("They offer us a package deal to sell us the attack / We save the world, we get revenge, bring all our soldiers back") from Kate and constant collaborator Anne Lindley about the difficulty of loving humankind. But it's the melody and delivery that really make the song work. McDonnell softly voices anger in a series of hard truths. Then she moves higher for an "oh, mercy" of frustration, prayer, and relief in a chorus that begs for a choir. But there's much more here. This CD's bent on expanding the range of McDonnell's songs. The first sounds we hear, electric guitar chords, signal a band approach, with the talented Scott Petito producing and playing a wide range of instruments. The imagistic "Tumbleweeds" follows, capturing the feel of a road trip going anywhere fast. Next, the protagonist of "Hey Joe," (no, not that "Hey Joe") learns that home is the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in. In "Fires," the speaker is determined to get to her lover. She's on fire. So are the forests of Colorado and Arizona. So are McDonnell's pipes. "Lemon Marmalade" is a sensual invitation from a lover who will show you "where the mangoes are" to a lover who will "thank me for the memories / of your body and mine". I'd accept. "Mayday" fondly remembers dangerous first love in a parked car while the band drives behind McDonnell's vibrant vocal. "Softhearted Girl" brings McDonnell's signature upside down and backwards guitar out front. It's a break-up lament over a "hard, hard world for a softhearted girl" in which "love is getting harder." Fortunately, we're in a world where Ms. McDonnell just keeps getting better.
© David Kleiner

Kate McDonnell's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Go Down Moses"

Vance Gilbert, "Unfamiliar Moon", Disismye Music 004, 2004

I've been a Vance head ever since I saw him at a folk festival a few years back. In the middle of his set he put down his guitar, stepped to the edge of the stage and without the benefit of microphones, sang a powerful a cappella song that quieted the crowd. On this album you can hear that power but also the subtlety of his beautifully crafted pop-folk songs. He channels his inner Al Green on "Lie to Me," a great break-up tune that begins with an emotional gospel organ. A cleanly picked acoustic guitar is the centerpiece on "Gondolier", with Duke Levine offering ethereal electric guitar. An understated piano and lazy snare provide a great bed for the jazzy "Unforgivable." The sarcastic "That Front Porch Song" seems like a straightforward tale of losing a son in war but with every "thank you lord" you realize that it's a strong anti-war song. "I've Got a Plane" echoes a similar sentiment with the plea, "We ain't coming down until there's peace." I've got a plane too and I'm not coming down until you all buy this album. You won't be disappointed.
© Jamie Anderson

Vance Gilbert's Website Buy it at CD Freedom
Listen to Ten Thousand Skies (mp3)

Cardinal Trait, "You Already Know", Emanon Records, 2004

You get the timeless rock set-up, a singer and a guitarist, in a well-choreographed punch and counter-punch. It takes a vocalist, (Aaron Vaughn), who can, first and foremost, make us believe-and a guitarist, (Mark Sullivan), to peel the paint off the walls. That is the recipe, simple and timeless as whiskey, but tens of thousands have failed in the trying. These guys don't. What does it take to blast out of Tulsa? Songs like the opening track, "Something More," that waste no time in establishing authority worth your notice. They sound like Tulsa should sound -- straight ahead, fundamentally American-rock, grassroots, and radio-now appearing in a beer bar from heaven. There's a hint of recent trends; Matchbox Twenty comes to mind, but thankfully not too much. Interestingly, the album builds momentum as it progresses. Track 5, "So Called Friend," is a notable song of love's labors lost. Track 7, "Ardmore," is the radio standout. If it's not on it should be, I feel like I already do hear it. Track 8, "White," is a personal fave, a grassroots anthem that recalls the BoDeans in its melodic verve and spot-on harmonies from Vaughn brother Josh and Will Porter. "Lately," the next cut, is crunch and percussion with a pure pop overlay. The outcome is well-done ballad rock. Then sturdy harmonies propel the final cut, "Let Me Be," to love's outlaw end. Nothing is wasted here. From the perfect opening two-second guitar lick to "Something More" through the compelling song cluster that composes the second half of the album, these guys paint the lines on big sonic blacktop. Trendy they are not. These range dudes are Jack Black homely. They wear frayed ball caps when they gig. So if you like just the right amount of white-noise distortion in your power chords, and a voice that makes it matter, send your check to help rescue these guys from Lumpy's Sports Bar, a gig they actually played, who knows, maybe more than once.
© Steve Klingaman

Cardinal Trait's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to All For You (mp3)

Fred Niznik, "The Renaissance LP", Protype Entertainment, 2004

It's astounding how quickly a second-generation immigrant to America can assimilate the culture and authentically make it his own, especially when talent catalyzes the transformation. Fred Niznik, a Brooklynite whose parents originally hail from the Ukraine, has dusted off Russia's proud but staid 19th century classical music heritage to successfully resurrect himself amidst the modern pop, jazz and R&B idioms of his family's adopted homeland. As suggested by his first CD's title, it's a renaissance of sorts for Niznik, both personally and interculturally, but especially because his brand of pop is so very good and so quintessentially American. The apple pie stamp-of-approval has even been bestowed by MTV, who recently licensed the music on "The Renaissance LP" for the upcoming season of "The Real World." Listeners might hear traces of John Mayer, Jason Mraz or Gavin DeGraw in Niznik's music, though an undercurrent of Brasilian jazz oozes around the edges of the two openers "Emotional Rollercoaster" and "Free Again," making this music Niznik's very own hybrid. The R&B-inflected "White Soul" and "Your Number" ratchets the temperature up, the mercury rising very close to the fiery and soulful intensity of another rising star, Marc Broussard. The gulf between Niznik and Broussard's "grab-you quotient" is largely one of production than of talent: only when played side-by-side to Broussard does Niznik's barebones production sound a little sparse and restrained. I'd recommend the American approach for his next release... spare no expense for a full-blown ride to the top.
© Alan Fark

Fred Niznik's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Emotional Rollercoaster" (mp3)

Joe Rohan, "Walk Along", OfftheMap Music, 2003

Clevelander Joe Rohan shakes off the grit from that rough-edged Ohio torn with a smooth country-based debut, "Walk Along." The well-traveled drummer takes easily to the spotlight, adding lead vocals, acoustic guitar and dobro to his stix licks. He teams with Tom Prebish (bass), Dan Rose (guitar), Bill Lestock (guitar), Austin Charanghat (guitar) and Tim Longfellow (piano) on this 11-track effort. Vicki Chew and Jen Podulka provide backing vocals. Rohan shows off a fine country tenor as he croons through seven of his own compositions. Though some songs approach country pop, his lyrical approach is more folk-oriented than rock, with tales of love lost, love missed, wistful regrets and cautious hope. He also covers Rickie Lee Jones' "The Horses," a bit of a stretch, with, not surprisingly, mixed results. Still, Rohan displays a knack for crafting a pleasant-enough country song, and ably presenting it. Clearly, he has a lot of stories to share -- though one hopes some shadings of that Cleveland edginess will manifest itself in subsequent efforts. © Fred Kraus

Joe Rohan's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Walk Along" (mp3)



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