Minor 7th March/April 2006: Todd Hallawell, Garrison Starr, Raphael Rabello, Alec Stone Sweet, Brianna Lane, Bruce Cockburn, Livingston Taylor, Chris Thile & Mike Marshall, Muriel Anderson, Ged Brockie, Jackie Tice, Gert de Meijer, Hot Buttered Rum
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

March/April, 2006

Todd Hallawell, "From Nashville and Back," Soundset Recordings SR1022, 2005

Guitarist Todd Hallawell is a great player in the tradition of Chet Atkins. Part of his eminent reputation amongst guitarists is due to his association with the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society. Classically trained, Hallawell has also studied with such greats as classical guitar composer John Duarte. He is the winner of the 1997 National Fingerpicking Guitar Championship. On this outing he engages in a series of collaborations with prominent writers for guitar such as Howard Emerson and Mark Casstevens, the latter who wrote "All Thumbs," was recorded by Atkins. The version found on this CD invokes genteel inflections of the master himself as Hallawell lays down a not-a-care-in-the-world stroll through this lovely composition. Bassist Darrell Muller, who accompanies Hallawell on most of these tracks, deserves a shout out for his delightfully understated performance on this piece. Guitarists seeking a bit of a woodshed challenge may also want to check out Casstevens' "Gladrags" here. The CD leads off with the Hallawell-penned "Windy Bill" which showcases his astonishingly fluid style. The elocution, the execution, and the inherent musicality of this artist's work becomes immediately apparent. Many of the figures found in his work are relatively common in pop and country traditions, but they are heard here as if completely fresh and unencumbered by earthbound fretting and pick attack. In short, he makes the competition sound clumsy. "Undersea," a Roger Hudson tune that the two collaborate on is possessed of an elegiac, richly complex harmonic palette with the faintest of Methany overtones. "Slide Fest," another duet with a co-composer (in this case Dorian Michael) notably lives up to its name. It is immediately followed by another Michael song, "10/8," that is simply beautiful. Hallewell is a player's player, and he makes that puppy sing. He is a devotee of McCollum, Lowden, and Chris Jenkins guitars. With a seemingly effortless dexterity, he articulates notes as such, without the artifacts of effort. He's definitely a deacon in the Church of Chet.
© Steve Klingaman

Todd Hallawell's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "And Why Not?" (mp3)
Listen to Todd Hallawell at our podcast

Garrison Starr, "The Sound of You and Me," Vanguard Records 933-2, 2005

Garrison Starr has a voice with an ache in it. "The Sound of You and Me" will convince you she's got the wounds to match. It may be painful, but she makes every listener a willing voyeur with her disarming singing, honesty, and idea-laden, Nashville production. "Pendulum" opens with tick-tock percussion that stays in the mix, moving in and out throughout the tune. "Pretending" takes one of the prettiest melodies on the record and marries it to one of the saddest lyrics ("Is this all that life's supposed to be / always wondering what we're gonna see / did you know for certain you would leave / please don't tell me"). And in the midst of this -- a melancholy whistle solo. "Sing It Like a Victim" is a set of instructions on how to sound like a victim, delivered with pop flair. Its nice percussion groove over voices morphs into a Beatlesque melody that builds to a climax of sound overlays on the George-side of Magical Mystery era Fab Four. (Another nod to the boys is the sitar like melody -- played by electric guitar and strings -- in "Big Enough" that builds to a climax that is definitely big enough, even if the love was not.) The theme of the album is voiced in the penultimate tune, "No Man's Land." It opens with some confident strumming, but almost immediately an organ enters, hitting a discord on its third note. The lyrics find the singer musing, "from birthmarks to bruises / how come everybody loses / I want somebody to hold my hand / in this no man's land." But there is no one. Instead, the CD ends with "We Were Just Boys and Girls" about the loss of innocence perhaps as a result of sexual abuse. Listen, here, to the plaintive, bell-like synth melody and the way Starr delivers the words "lousy, lousy, lousy." In the intersection between the pain, the lovely melodies, and the purposeful production, Starr has made a tuneful and touching record.
© David Kleiner

Garrison Starr's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Pendulum" (mp3)

Raphael Rabello, "Cry, My Guitar," GSP Recordings 1010 CD, 2005

Raphael Rabello's posthumous release of 13 solo finger-styled guitar pieces is nothing short of astonishing. Complex syncopated rhythms, intricate counterpoints, and cascading arpeggiated runs grace each wonderfully crafted composition. The mastery with which this late Brazilian guitarist commanded his instrument is unparalleled. However, throughout the recording the guitarist never loses focus on the inherent melody and beauty of each piece. Rabello plays much more from his heart rather than simply relying on the dexterity of his fingers. Nowhere is this better heard than on the title piece, "Cry My Guitar," which is a poignant tribute to his hero and close friend, Baden Powell. Throughout his career, Rabello considered himself a nationalist, and was quite contempt with mastering the music of his native heritage. However, with his integration of diverse musical pallets, the artist molded and redefined the parameters of Brazilian music, rather than merely reflecting the rich musical legacy of his peers and predecessors. Throughout the album one hears how effortlessly the guitarist blends Flamenco, Classical, Jazz, and Brazilian styles into his musical vision to create something truly unique and at the same time true to his heritage. Rabello plays each note with such urgency and passion that one can only imagine the contributions he could have made if he had lived. However, this recording will clearly help solidify this extraordinary musician's legacy. Raphael Rabello was not just a guitarist of his own generation, but one whose echoes will be heard for many generations to come.
© James Scott

Raphael Rabello at GSP Guitars Buy it at GSP Recordings
Listen to "Sete Cordas" (mp3)

Alec Stone Sweet, "Memory and Praise," Solid Air Records SACD 2052, 2005

If Alec Stone Sweet teaches law at Yale University as well as he brings to life the music of the British Isles, then his students must count themselves honored indeed. For Stone Sweet's "Memory and Praise" brings an austere, almost sparse quality to these thirteen songs, six attributed to the blind Irish harpist Turlough O'Carolan, the inspiration of much recent Celtic guitar music. While "Memory and Praise" is new on Solid Air Records, Stone Sweet originally released it back in 2001 on Appleseed Records, and it remained a relatively obscure treasure until last year. The CD also includes music from Applachia, France, Israel, as well as the obligatory jig (the traditional "An Phis Fluich" played with modal dexterity) and hornpipe ("The Rights of Man" played with a gentle tempo where the tune lingers gracefully like a lament, thanks also to Richard Scholz on lap dulcimer). Included from the O'Carolan repertoire are "Manx Lullaby/O'Carolan's Welcome", which shares some melodic themes with "O'Carolan's Farewell to Music." At times you can hear Stone Sweet's use of clawhammer banjo techniques (like on "Shady Grove/Salt River"). Stone Sweet's modal interpretation of songs like the traditional "Ducks on the Pond/The Frosty Morning" gains power from his use of hammer-ons, creating a driving rhythm. All of the songs on this recording show first-rate guitar playing; it's as enjoyable collection of traditional music on solo guitar as I have heard.
© Kirk Albrecht

Alec Stone Sweet's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to "An Phis Fluich" (mp3)

Brianna Lane, "Radiator", PMR Music, 2005

The moment you press play, Brainna Lane's breathy-yet-firm delivery, breezy melodies, and winsome guitar picking will certainly evoke warm memories of Lilith Fair era icons Lisa Loeb, Mary Lou Lord, and perhaps Juliana Hatfield. But that's not to say she's a retro folkie or a softie either. "Radiator," her sophomore effort, is a mostly mellow affair bolstered by sinewy, understated arrangements, cinematic lyrics, and razor sharp musicianship. Produced and mixed by bassist / keyboardist Evan Brubaker, the album also boasts a panoramic live-in-the-studio mix, with acoustic guitars sounding rich and full, Joel Litwin's crackling drums resonating from speaker to speaker, and Lane's vocals dead center. Though her music is steeped in the contemporary folk ethos of confessional story telling, Lane and company keep it interesting. "Wrong Hands," a galloping country rocker which could have set comfortably on an old Lee Hazelwood / Nancy Sinatra record, is the stuff of spaghetti westerns as the singer bemoans that she's "spooning in this big bead / can't get to sleep / 'cause I'm in the wrong hands." (Note to artist: this is a scintillating music video screenplay in waiting.) Brubaker purveys a retro Al Kooper-ish organ foundation for the infectious mid-tempo rocker "Sad Songs," which is further embellished with subdued yet crunchy guitar licks. Lane's tender solo flight "Man In The Moon" is made even more haunting by her brief legato, a capella passages. And Lane pours on the hooks in "The Good Guys" a song of a single mother and only child, as well as in and the opening cut "Downpour," which excels by way of its menacing, repetitive guitar riffs abetted by Jonathan Klingman's distorted power chords. The record concludes with the stark, desolate "Bullets," a cut brimming with distant, minimalist piano lines which underpin the libretto "baby get your gun / I'm ready to fight tonight / I just might have a bullet of a song to make you cry." Now if that's not laying down a gauntlet, I don't know what is...
© Tom Semioli

Brianna Lane's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Still Alive" (mp3)
Listen to Brianna Lane at our podcast

Bruce Cockburn, "Speechless", Rounder Records 11661-3250-2, 2005

If you've been listening to Bruce Cockburn's music over the years, you've been struck by his masterful ability to tell a story, to cast light on issues from global warfare to the environment. But weaving its way through Cockburn's tunes has been an underlying prowess on guitar, now given center stage on this collection of instrumentals called "Speechless." It's an easily identifiable mélange of work stretching back over 3 decades, combined with three new cuts (the sparsely haunting "Elegy," the slow blues number "King Kong Goes to Tallahassee," and the atmospheric "The End of All Rivers"). What is especially nice about this collection is that it demonstrates Cockburn's mastery over many musical idioms, and while his sound is recognizable, it's not monolithic. He is on equal footing grooving a 12-bar blues, bending and sliding his way through "Rouler Sa Bosse," or taking the listener on a tapped-out New Acoustic adventure like "Islands in a Black Sky". Cockburn is almost melancholic on "Salt, Sun, and Time," while the ensemble of bass, drums, and bells on the winding "Rise and Fall" juxtaposes his fingered chordal progressions and arpeggios in a jazz-inflected journey. These fifteen songs are a treasury of Bruce Cockburn's musical heritage. Here is a musician thoroughly familiar with his instrument, speaking as eloquently without a word as he does when he has something important to say.
© Kirk Albrecht

Bruce Cockburn's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Foxglove" (mp3)

Livingston Taylor, "There You Are Again", Whistling Dog Music CD1005, 2005

Livingston Taylor is unjustly remembered by the public for just two things -- his 1978 hit "I Will Be in Love with You" and his brotherhood to mega-star James Taylor. Though these are in fact two remarkable credentials, they certainly fall short of defining the man and his impressive career as a talented songwriter and performer. Few know of his professorship at Berklee College of Music, or that he has written a book entitled "Stage Performance." Few know that his discography includes as many as thirteen releases, a prolific catalogue which rivals that of big brother James. His previous releases have often been stripped-down productions -- man and guitar -- but also exuding a jazzy sensibility and a captivating wit which has allowed them to stand above most singer-songwriter fare. His new release, "There You Are Again," can't for a moment be labeled stripped-down. Produced with a capital "P," the opening cut "Best of Friends" features soaring strings and a cameo from Carly Simon. The next track, "There I'll Be," turns into an even larger supersession with James Taylor and Kate Taylor on background vocals, ex-JT sideman Leland Sklar on bass, Steely Dan alumnus Steve Gadd on drums and Vince Gill on electric guitar. Vince Gill seems right at home here because there's a twangy feel to this track, surprising in light of Liv's 1994 lampoon entitled "I Hate Country Music." But, eclectic as ever, Liv shifts gears into some excellent gospel-tinged R&B on "Yes," Step By Step" and "Tell Jesus, " the latter done a capella with the incredible vocal group Take 6. Vibraphonist and fellow Berklee professor Gary Burton joins Liv on "Tuesday's Lullaby," completing the circle from country to R&B to jazz. The thing missing on this CD is Liv and guitar, unadulterated, with the exception of "Blame it on Me." He's a great guitarist, and the only problem with all the production and guest-stardom is that Liv's instrument gets drowned out.
© Alan Fark

Livingston Taylor's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Blame it on Me" (mp3)

Chris Thile & Mike Marshall, "Live Duets," Sugar Hill Records SUG-CD 4010, 2006

If you've ever heard Chris Thile in concert with or without the Grammy Award winning acoustic trio Nickel Creek, or viewed him on his numerous jam band appearances on BET Jazz, you know he is a ball of fire. Combining Thile's unbridled melodic fervor with string maestro Mike Marshall (Dave Grisman Quintet, Psychograss, Modern Mandolin Quartet, Montreux, and New Grange among others) and you've got a twosome for the ages. On this no-holds-barred live recording Thile and Marshall render all of the self-penned cuts on either two mandolins or mandolin / mandocello configurations. As you would not expect from these blazing finger-pickers, Thile and Marshall kick off the set with a sleepy, almost disjointed ballad "Shoulda Seen It Coming" which incorporates spine tingling upper-register runs, glistening harmonics, and cheery strumming as the tempo (and temperature) gradually rises. Throughout this set Thile and Marshall have an uncanny knack for finishing each other's musical sentences, employing a myriad of arpeggios, rapid-fire single-note motifs, trills, hammer-ons, odd time rhythms, and fluid runs that quote classical, jazz, bluegrass, and avant-garde, sometimes all in one verse. Among the most mind-blowing selections is the duo's rendition of J.S. Bach D Minor Gigue from Solo Violin Partita #2. With Marshall on mandocello, the duo makes you wonder if J.S. had a few old Gibson's laying around in his closet that nobody knew about. "Tanja" displays intriguing passages of unison playing before each picker takes off on a solo, improvisatory flight. The cheeriness of "Joy Ride In a Toy Car / Hey Ho" is abetted by a flurry of call and response pizzicato interludes. And the intro to "Carpathian Mt. Breakdown" is pure be-bop madness as Thile and Marshall swing feverishly like Charlie Parker and Dizzy on their best night at the Copa. Thile takes his turn on the mandocello too, in "Til Dawn," a tender cut with deliberately legato melodies and chord accompaniment. Among the weaponry used on these tracks are; 1924 Gibson F5-Loar, 1999 Dudenbostel#5, 2000 Lawrence Smart, 1982 John Monteleone mandocello. Guitar players stuck in a rut may want to check out this collection and consider "relaxing" with a mandolin, and mandolin players (and fans), of course, will salivate. It can't get better than this.
© Tom Semioli

A Chris Thile Fan Site | Mike Marshall's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Byron's (mp3)

Muriel Anderson, "Wildcat," CGD Music, 2005

Muriel Anderson has traveled an adventurous road in her musical career. While best known for her signature sound on a Paul McGill classical, Anderson plays steel string as well as harp guitars with equal aplomb. She is at home pickin' like Chet Atkins, grooving on an American rag, or capturing the sound of Japanese Koto. So it should come as no surprise that Anderson -- an instrumental wizard to this point -- should take yet another fork, this time into the realm of vocals on her latest offering, "Wildcat." It's a CD chock full of fine supporting players like guitarists Duane Eddy and Stanley Jordan, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and cellist Julie Adams. "Wildcat" features only 4 true instrumentals - "Bells for Marcel," an eloquent tribute to the late, great Marcel Dadi; "Velzoe's Garden" plucked tenderly on the harp guitar; "Lady Pamela," also on harp guitar in tandem with Stuart Duncan's tasteful fiddling; and "Owl's Psalm," inspired by the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. The other pieces on the record reveal Anderson's vocal stylings, a sweet, whispery sound. Though her voice doesn't carry the range of her guitar playing, it works pretty well in these songs. She's a fine crafter of melodies, and that strength is highlighted in these vocal tunes. We get a taste of Brasil in "Rio de Janeiro," helped by the percussion work of Tom Roady. The sweet "St. Louis Waltz" speaks of home, while "The Sparrow" uses Muriel's favorite image -- nature -- as a mirror for questions burning in her heart. Those who like Muriel Anderson's guitar playing will be pleased with the addition of her voice -- she's now singing two ways in her music.
© Kirk Albrecht

Muriel Anderson's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to samples from Wildcat here

Ged Brockie, "The Last View from Mary's Place," Circular Records CR 1007, 2005

Ged Brockie's dazzling premier solo venture features nine wonderfully crafted original compositions performed by an extraordinary collection of musicians. This dynamic recording features Brockie on electric and acoustic guitars, Paul Harrison on keyboards, Mario Caribe on acoustic and electric bass, Dave Stewart and Paul Mills on Drums, and David Sim on percussion. While the leader is best known as a member of the Scottish Guitar Quartet, this recording is sure to firmly establish the guitarist as a solo artist. Although several pieces feature the electric guitar, most of the album centers around Brockie's extraordinary acoustic playing. The opening "Spring in My Step" is a dazzling tour de force featuring dramatic unison flurries accompanied by impressive sweep-picking crescendos. This song is a great example of how an acoustic guitar can be a very formidable presence in contemporary improvised music. The two reflective solo acoustic pieces, "As the Sun Streams Through" and "The End of the Beginning," are also exceptional standouts. A future recording devoted to this genre would be an excellent follow up to this remarkable debut. Brockie is an extremely versatile musician equally gifted as a composer and improviser. The album offers the listener an eclectic array of musical genres ranging from Celtic, modern, classical, world, and jazz, all of which merge gracefully throughout this alluring recording. Fans of Pat Metheny and Earl Klugh will thoroughly enjoy this album. Also, those interested in seeing how versatile an acoustic guitar can be in a variety of musical settings, will find this collection extremely engaging. With "The Last View from Mary's Place," Brockie has earned himself a prominent position in the world of Contemporary Jazz assuring him an audience well beyond his native Scotland.
© James Scott

Ged Brockie's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "The Day You Waved Goodbye" (mp3)
Listen to Ged Brockie at our podcast

Jackie Tice, "Second Skin", SajaMaka Music 0005, 2005

"Second Skin" crosses musical boundaries from folk, rock, jazz, through Native American traditions to explore the way borders "define and cage what we do." Though many opposites inhabit this record, they coexist beautifully. Ms. Tice herself embodies contradiction, at once a seeker, a warrior, and a homebody; an original who sounds at times like one iconic singer or another; an old soul and a child full of wonder; an angry rocker ("Trail of Tears" and "Medusa Jane") and a sweet-voiced poet; a hopeless romantic and a realist ("I will tell you that I love you / I will tell you how it feels / Should you turn away in laughter / I will wish you well and heal"). "Second Skin" begins and ends with prayer-like songs. The title track opens, a hooky invocation. As the long notes of Tony Dominc's fretless bass build tension, it moves through a series of entreaties tumbling out in a breathless rush ("Give me boundaries / Give me brains / To know the obstacles that live / Outside these walls I've made"). All this lead to a driving and hard to shake chorus, tinged with the delicate harmonies of longtime collaborator Billy Hall. There's some great wordsmithing here too ("I am just a guest / in this world of magic / This coat of flesh"). "The Window," portrays the hopeful fragility of a speaker who, though she has "No doors to free me," will find an opening so "A light will shine through." Producer Bill Miller, the Grammy-winning songwriter, contrasts her static situation with an arrangement that builds relentlessly. "Borders," alluringly explores the album's theme ("From fencerow and milestones / The markers are clean / Birthdays and comfort zones / There's no in-between") with more than a dash of Joni Mitchell-like phrasing. "In These Bones" finds resilience, strength, and motion in a museum display of a fallen bison. "Thunder Moon" is the lovely prayer that brings "Second Skin" to a close as Joshua Yudkin's graceful piano interplays with Tice's six string and Pete Cummings' high strung guitar. When Miller enters on native flute, all borders disappear, leaving us "sound and safe" amid the longing, faith, and splendor we find once we don our second skin. © David Kleiner

Jackie Tice's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "The Window" (mp3)

Gert de Meijer, "The Spirit of the Turtle," 2005

A native of the Netherlands, Gert de Meijer plays 6-string, 12-string and baritone guitars. This pleasant set of solo originals recalls John Fahey's work in the 1970s and the New Age guitar movement of the early 80s. "The Shackle", an uptempo piece, begins the CD, featuring cleanly articulated ascending chords, occasionally punctuated by single-string bass and treble runs. "Timeless Time" is pensive, lyrical and softer in tone, a standout composition and performance. De Meijer hauls out his 12-string for "Yeahh!!," which is all about fun, full of tension-and-release chord progressions and bluesy runs. "Caribbean Rag" combines New Age chords with a ragtime structure and is reminiscent of some of Steve Howe's early solo work. He plays a baritone guitar on "Thinking of You," which conveys mixed feelings for whoever is on his mind, but makes good use of the instrument's entire range. "Sjak's Place" includes major-to-minor shifts and nice tapping, as does "Tune for BdM," whose introductory theme echoes Laurence Juber's "Rules of the Road." The title track closes the CD, revealing some influence from John Fahey (as suggested by the title), but perhaps equal amounts from Michael Hedges and David Crosby. "The Spirit of the Turtle" is well-paced and cleanly recorded, with no apparent effects or overdubs. The CD's overall feel is one of introversion, i.e., that de Meijer is giving us a glimpse of his world view -- one that is tinged with melancholy. He is a skilled musician whose approach fits in well with an earlier era of guitarists. As such, Gert de Meijer is likely to develop a specialized audience, primarily of guitarists who will look beyond the latest trends in their listening and in their own playing. © Patrick Ragains

Gert de Meijer's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music
Listen to "Timeless Time" (mp3)

Hot Buttered Rum, "Well-Oiled Machine", 2005

Musically accomplished, lyrically thoughtful and compositionally satisfying, Hot Buttered Rum dips into bluegrass' roots while juicing it up with their own brand of infectious elixir. The title of their third CD, "Well-Oiled Machine," is a nod to the name of the acoustic band's custom tour bus powered by recyled vegetable oil and biodiesel. This joyfully innovative collection is guaranteed to make you smile. It will also make you want to dance. And, it will also make you recall that wonderful bluegrass fusion collection, "Old and In the Way" (1975), featuring Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements, David Grisman and Peter Rowan. Rowan, in fact, guests on "Well-Oiled Machine," as do Darol Anger and Mike Marshall. The key to the fun is how Hot Buttered Rum takes the edge off of traditional bluegrass without losing any of its essence. The result is music performed for its sheer pleasure by musicians who sound as if they have been playing together for a few decades, not just a few years. Hot Buttered Rum consists of Bryan Horne on upright bass (a 19th century treasure he calls Dark Chocolate); Nat Keefe (who has studied in Ghana, West Africa) on guitar and vocals; Zachary Matthews on mandolin and fiddle; Aaron Redner (MA from New England Conservatory of Music) on fiddle and mandolin; and Eric Yates on woodwinds, banjo and accordion. All contribute vocals and harmonies, and all but Horne write. Highlights among the many great tunes here are "Guns or Butter" with its harmonized chorus, the upbeat "Firefly," the buttery-smooth title track, and the instant classic "Poison Oak." You really need to hear this intoxicating collection. © Fred Kraus

Hot Buttered Rum's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Idaho Pines" (mp3)

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