Minor 7th May/June 2004: Tommy Emmanuel, Richard Smith & Jim Nichols, Marco Pereira, Jonatha Brooke, Catie Curtis, Bill Cooley, Rory Block, Maria Muldaur & Eric Bibb, Badi Assad, Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum, Jean Synodinos, Brandon Patton
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

May/June, 2004

Tommy Emmanuel, "Endless Road", 2004

I think that secretly, most guitarists long to be Tommy Emmanuel. Or, maybe it's just that I long to be Tommy Emmanuel, or at least have a small fraction of his talent, style, and chops. On his latest solo release, "Endless Road", Emmanuel showcases his virtuosity in a stream of sweet (Chet's "Windy and Warm"), Celtic ("Morning Aire"), pseudo-bluegrass ("Tall Fiddler", an homage to Byron Berline) and downright hot ("Son of a Gun") instrumentals. There are even 2 tracks where Tommy sings (not his strongest suit). The 17 cuts each drip with Tommy's signature style of unmatched technical prowess combined with taste, something lacking in much modern fingerstyle guitar music. He can play as fast as anyone around - just listen (again and again!) to those licks on the bluesy "Sanatorium Shuffle", but as the slower tempo tunes on the disk demonstrate, he doesn't feel the need for pyrotechnics all the time. Emmanuel proves as adept at arranging as he does with his own writing, dazzling in his rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" with cascading harmonics, pulsating hammer-ons, and arpeggios in all the right places. This is a man at one with a guitar, revealing a level of enjoyment that flows to the listener. He is just having a good time as he rips through "Son of a Gun", bouncing through the Travis-picking. The mic picks up his laughter as he nails riff after riff, and we have as much fun as he does. The man endowed with the CGP moniker by Chet Atkins - Certified Guitar Player - is certainly fulfilling that incredible legacy. If you want to buy just one CD of great acoustic guitar music this year, get "Endless Road" - you won't be disappointed.
© Kirk Albrecht

Tommy Emmanuel's Website Buy it at Tommy Emmanuel's website

Alan Fark interviews Tommy Emmanuel!! - click here


Richard Smith and Jim Nichols "Live at Boulevard Music", 2004

Many guitarists dream of achieving the lofty plateau first scaled by the -- all bow down -- immensely talented Chet Atkins. While there will always be only one Chet, a couple of longtime disciples, Richard Smith and Jim Nichols, revisit some of his magic with arrangements as delightful as a newborn’s first chuckle. Smith, an England native, and Nichols, born and reared in Virginia, shared a consuming passion for Chet’s musical genius as young lads. On "Live from Boulevard Music", the duo share a fingerpicking wizardry that celebrates an array of infectious tunes. Both display a speed and surety on the fretboard that’s made all the more impressive by the live setting. The two open the set with a lightning-fast, smooth-as-buttered-beans, snakey-slick version of Gene Slone’s "Cascade". Tasty versions follow of such standards such "Moonglow", "Who’s Sorry Now", "Autumn Leaves", "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Stompin’ at the Savoy", as well as Atkins’ own "Main Street Breakdown", 17 tracks in all. It may have been fun to include some of their between-song comments, but much of that patter has been edited out. One note of discord is the inclusion of Morning Nichols' vocals on a few tracks. Nothing against the chirp, as she’s in fine voice, but this setting seems the domain of the two agile players, whose interplay is key. Where one guitarist begins and the other ends seems seamless to these ears. Smith plays his Kirk Sand nylon string on all tracks, while Nichols plays a Hollenbeck "Jim Nichols" Signature Model electric and a Taylor 914C acoustic with Seymour Duncan pickups. But I think these virtuosos could play broomsticks and make them sing.
© Fred Kraus

Richard Smith's Website | Jim Nichols' Website Buy it here
Listen to Cascade (streaming mp3)

Fred Kraus interviews Richard Smith!! - click here


Marco Pereira, "Original", GSP Recordings 1023CD, 2003

Marco Pereira treats us to a marvelous and musical guided tour of baião, choro, frevo, seresta, forro and samba on his CD "Original". Though the liner notes attempt to indoctrinate the listener into an intellectual understanding of these Brasilian forms, the words fall short of their didactic goal. In the end, however, the words don't matter. "Original" is no stodgy documentary of styles, but a collection of lively and moving celebrations which vicariously afford a peek into several windows of Brasilian mood. As the composer of all 14 tracks, Pereira breathes life into these pieces, magically animating musical notes rendered on solo guitar into flamboyant Rio street scenes. Pereira plays with the lightning-fast precision of a studied classical player, but exhorts his own unique voice with some striking stylistic nuances. On the opening number "Tio Boros" he uses a trademark syncopation technique by slapping the 6th string with his thumb followed by "pizzicato alla Bartok", wherein the 3rd or 4th string is pulled such that it strikes the fretboard percussively. Pereira works this slapstyle into a frenetic pace on "Num Pagode em Planaltina", an infectious commemoration to the Brasilian singer and composer João Bosco, but which also seems to indirectly pay tribute to those players such as Stanley Clarke and Alphonso Johnson who pioneered a similar slapstyle on bass. Pereira steps softly onto hallowed musical ground on the more pensive tunes "Estrela de Manhã" and "Nostálgica, No. 2", the former sounding stylistically like Ralph Towner's "Anthem". Also like Towner's music, there seems to be a subliminal composer's acknowledgement to Bill Evans on "Flor das Águas" and "Cantiga". I still can't tell you the difference between a baião and a choro, but I can tell you that Marco Pereira's "Original" is fantastic.
© Alan Fark

Marco Pereira's Website Buy it at Amazon.com

Jonatha Brooke, "Back in the Circus", Bad Dog Records, 2004

With the title track, Jonatha brings you into the little circus of her heart. It's a stunner, with compressed, intimate vocals musing on the circus life, "And every town's the same / Only the names and faces change / On this rollercoaster ride, up and down..." It's life on the road - the singer's own sadness is dislocated there, along with the "queens of the funhouse." It's an understated tour de force, augmented by collaborator Ryan Freeland's melancholy, George Martin-esque circus organ. You're a little let down when she doesn't carry the conceit all the way through - you were expecting maybe "Sergeant Pepper's." Though she moves away from the big top, she stays with darker tones through the fine "Better After All", then further darkens the duskiness in "It Matters Now": "Sour, sour grapes make bitter wine / And you're no funny Valentine / You take such pleasure in revenge / A perfect settled score / But it just whets your appetite for more". Brooke's hooks are most effective on her own material. Of the covers, only Alan Parsons' "Eye in the Sky" seems integrated into the whole. The circus theme doesn't really come back until late in the program, on "No Net Below," which introduces the trapeze metaphor in a perspective where the focus becomes the place where the net ought to be. Singer-songwriter stratagems must make us care whether or not there is a net, and she does. It's a rewarding listen. © Steve Klingaman

Jonatha Brooke's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to It Matters Now (RealAudio)

Catie Curtis, "Dreaming in Romance Languages", Vanguard 844-2, 2004

Some New York critic dubbed Catie Curtis a "folk-rock goddess." The cover of my advance copy of "Dreaming in Romance Languages" (changed to a dreamlike sepia carnival scene for the commercial release) puts the lie to "goddess" as surely as the music inside. A barefooted Curtis sits on a bare mattress in a bare room, unassuming and introspective, "down here in the mess of life." Curtis' songs are far from bare but the stories they tell-in plainspoken language -- are decidedly down-to-earth. Curtis is happily domesticated, with a partner and a toddler. Yet the songs focus on temptation, breaking up, people and things that are bad for me and bad for you, and -- when all is said and done -- lingering hope in the face of "Dark Weather." Curtis' singing is also plainspoken, a stage whisper of a voice with a distinctive hiccup. But her delivery charms, unfailingly communicating warmth, sincerity, and passion, whether she's being coy or head-over-heels ("Cross Over to Me" co-written with Beth Nielsen Chapman), desperate ("The Night" by the late Mark Sandman of Morphine) or idealistic ("Life Goes On"). The tuneful songs generally rest on unadorned musical phrases that move within a limited range: repeating, mirroring themselves, and finally sticking to you like oatmeal to ribs. Curtis' rhythmic strumming underpins an impeccable pop sensibility and an unerring focus on hook. Others might whine wondering "How far, tell me, will faith get me?" (from the rocking opener "Saint Lucy"). Instead, Curtis turns up the soulfulness as the band hits pairs of dramatic unison chords. "The Trouble You Bring" (co-written with Jimmy Ryan) showcases the passionate, slightly naughty side of Curtis. What a strong way to profess weakness, with a wah wah and a knife blade electric solo by Kevin Barry! In the shuffling "Red Light," the middle tune of a penultimate trilogy about contemporary life, Curtis effectively employs finely observed detail ("all his plastic prizes and Riley's clam shack/Fall burning in the waves"). The closer, "Dark Weather," movingly ties together the CD's political and personal themes. Curtis is no goddess, but she is most assuredly divine.
© David Kleiner

Catie Curtis' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to The Night (RealAudio)

Bill Cooley, "A Turn in the Road", NLM Records 002, 2004

It's been a long time since we heard from Bill Cooley. Well, it's been a while since we heard from him solo. If you follow Kathy Mattea's career, you know that Cooley is the crafter of much of her sound as her main guitarist, laying down hot telecaster licks and smooth acoustic grooves for the singer. That versatility shines through on "A Turn In The Road", where we are treated to 11 originals that span musical genres. In contrast to his initial solo release "Unravel'd" back in 1997, "A Turn In The Road" features ensemble settings showcasing Cooley's deft picking and slick guitar parts. Every cut has some other instruments along with Cooley's fine guitar work. He weaves a wonderful Celtic melody on "The Double Rose Jig" along with mandolin, whistle, accordion, and fiddle. It's a gentle foot stomper. He knows how to play with a band, getting ballsy on slide in "Black Smoke", while building up and letting it rip on "Uno Tuno". He jazzes things up on "Ill Be The First To Agree". But perhaps Cooley's forte is laying down any kind of groove with just his fingers and six steel strings - from ragtime ("Well Strung") to blues ("Scooter Pie"). The last cut on the disc, "A Forgotten Wish", is an eloquent testament to Cooley's strengths as a balladeer. He's been around long enough to know that melody counts, and his tunes show direction and development, letting us experience the mood without interruptions. This is music that guitar lovers will appreciate, but that those who just want a good listen will enjoy as well.
© Kirk Albrecht

Bill Cooley's Website Buy it at his website

Rory Block, Maria Muldaur and Eric Bibb, "Sisters and Brothers", Telarc CD-83588, 2004

What do get when you place three accomplished blues artists inside a comfortable recording space, slowly combine their individual talents, add three seasoned band members and let simmer? You’ve got the recipe for the new release, "Sisters & Brothers", featuring, Eric Bibb, Rory Block and Maria Muldaur. The album is a celebration of their musical journey and the bond shared as blues musicians which began in the 1960's, firmly rooted in folk music at the peak of its popularity. "Sisters and Brothers" has a spiritual theme, but it certainly doesn’t preach. Instead, you’ll find a positive, uplifting tone, touching the human spirit. It delivers a clear and simple message of unity and brotherhood, the importance of giving and being there for one another. In a world of uncertainty and fear, the message here is needed now more than ever. The opening track, is an acapella version of the gospel standard, "Rock Daniel". A call and response tune with Rory Block singing lead, Eric Bibb and Maria Muldaur providing steady vocal support. Next, Bibb takes the lead on this shuffle tune, "Don't Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down". His smooth, soulful, R&B style really shines, the emotion level in his voice slowly rises on every verse. Muldaur jumps in for a verse with her sassy vibrato, then returns with Block singing chorus. Chris Burns tears up the ivories with great riffs and an excellent solo. "Get Up Get Ready", finds Muldaur at her best on this swing tune. She drives home the message with her exuberant, sultry vocals, Block adding some jazzy guitar riffs. The albums finest duets come from Block and Muldaur, their first is the Withers classic, "Lean On Me". Block delivers a strong, soulful lead, as Muldaur joins in with warm, soaring harmonies. Their duet version of this R&B favorite, adds more depth and harmony without veering too far from the original. Their second duet is on a Block original, "Travlin' Woman Blues". Both women turn up the heat, each bouncing off the other with a healthy dose of steamy, sultry vocals. Burns piano keeps the fire burning on this honky-tonk tune, tickling the ivories with a sizzling solo. This is one of the albums best tracks, including, "Gotta Serve Somebody". Bibb gives this Dylan spiritual a fantastic ride. The final and title track, "Sisters and Brothers" is an uplifting gospel tune. Each voice wraps around the other in waves of warmth and comfort. It’s really a shame that this is the only track where they sing together as a trio. "Sisters and Brothers" is a dynamic collection of blues. I highly recommend you dive right into this one.
© Pamela Dow

Rory Block's Website | Maria Muldaur's Website | Eric Bibb's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Gotta Serve Somebody (RealAudio)

Badi Assad, "Dança das Ondas", GHA Records 126.053, 2003

Badi Assad is a young Brazilian performer whose accolades include top prize in 1987's International Villa-Lobos Festival and critical recognition from Guitar Player and Acoustic Guitar. This wonderful compilation presents eight tracks from her 1989 debut album, Dança dos tons, together with four solo pieces recorded in 2003. Assad now combines her classical guitar technique with wordless singing, occasional lyrics and mouth percussion. The 1989 recordings focus on Assad's guitar and include sparse percussion, mandolin and guitar (contributed by other musicians). Although the new tracks are more self-assured and even daring, each piece is spellbinding. Many tracks recall Latin America's classical music tradition and display a more mature harmonic sense than one usually hears on guitar-based recordings. Assad takes her time developing moods throughout the CD, beginning with four slower, meditative pieces. On the fifth track, "Vrap," she picks up the pace and increases tension, which she later releases on "Joana Francesca" and several slower, somewhat languorous, pieces. "Saudade No.3" continues in this vein, beginning with a solo guitar introduction, then segueing into a tango with mandolin and 7-string guitar added. Assad closes the album with two charming Cuban and Catalan folk pieces. The performances on this CD form a well-paced, captivating whole - I recommend it enthusiastically.
© Patrick Ragains

Badi Assad's Website Buy it at GHA Records

Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum, "Guest House", Hightone Records HCD 8167, 2004

Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum invite you to spend some time in their "Guest House" for some fine back porch music. (Call it bluegrass if you must.) But their invitation comes with a warning, an epigraph from the Sufi poet Rumi. We are all hosts, and as such should treat each "arrival" honorably, whether "a joy, a depression, (or) a meanness." Sorrowful or blissful, any guest "may be clearing you out for some new delight." Lewis and Rozum set out to prove, in the face of some personal setbacks--especially for Rozum-that their music can encompass the very big world of everything it means to be human and that it can heal. They succeed with flying fingers. They offer songs of affirmation (an exquisite acapella version of Claudia Schmidt's "Quiet Hills"), true love (Hazel Dickens' "My Heart's Own Love"), urban violence (Lewis' own "Willie Poor Boy" with a generous but ironic nod to Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd") and nostalgic humor ("Old Dan Tucker"). The musicianship throughout is impeccable, worthy of its pedigree. Lewis is a fiddle contest winner twice voted International Bluegrass Music Association "Female Vocalist of the Year." Rozum, best known as Lewis' musical partner, is the consummate sideman. His voice, gentle but undistinguished, is very effective in duet (Lewis' Louvin Brothers homage "Since You Went Away") and singing lead in Si Kahn's moving and wonderfully subversive "Just a Lie." Rozum's mandolin also serves a support role, propelling the more swinging tunes (Liz Meyer's "Bad Seed" and the classic "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes") with rhythmic riffs and otherwise playing tasteful fills. Scott Huffman adds swift, clean guitar runs whenever he sits in. The "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, with its pure beauty and appeal to nostalgia, showed there is an audience for authentic American songs. In their music, Lewis and Rozum keep the beauty, honor the nostalgia, and find the relevance. RSVP. © David Kleiner

Laurie Lewis' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Bad Seed (RealAudio)

Jean Synodinos, "Lucky", Fortunate Records FR 011, 2003

Austin-based singer-songwriter Jean Synodinos belts out the kind of bluesy vocal delivery that is paradoxically both bawdy and coy. There's just a hint-of-Texas mystery to her vibe that you can't quite define... is it down-home or come-hither? Synodinos' résumé of numerous songwriting awards attests to the spunk with which she's attacked her late-in-life career change, relying on the same personal tenacity which saw her successfully through the terror of a breast cancer diagnosis in 2002. The title to this CD, "Lucky", sums up the irony of Synodinos' leap of faith towards the fine music she was destined to make, made all the more possible by the liberating aftermath of a second chance. She's wisely surrounded herself on this CD with superb sidemen, including guitarists Charles Rieser and David Hamburger, and just the right mix of horns to perfectly complement her acoustic musical vision. The musical moods are primarily jazz and blues inflected, but run the gamut from footloose ("Running with Me"), intimate and intense ("I Want to Know You"), steamy (a cover of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe") to humorously self-deprecating ("Big Wahoo"). Whoever is touched by a listen to Synodinos' music is sure to feel the luck.
© Alan Fark

Jean Synodinos' Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to Running With Me (mp3)

Brandon Patton, "Should Confusion", Merlin Pool Music, 2003

We've all been there before: churning out other artists' hits at pubs, frat parties, weddings, and various public places while trying to expurgate images of American Idol from destroying our dreams. After a self-imposed exile from cover band purgatory, Brandon Patton made the leap from working stiff to artist. "Should Confusion", Patton's bittersweet, enjoyable sophomore effort draws from a myriad of pop influences. The muted percussion loops, octave harmonies, reverb laden backing vocals, and horn section interludes in "Thirty One Hundred Miles" accentuate Patton's wistful melodies without over burdening the listener with too much gloss. "Everybody Loves You Now" echoes Paul McCartney's "Honey Pie" with its half-time jazz beat, plodding upright bass, and cheeky Vaudevillian phrasing. Using sampled tongue clicks as a drum beat and the human voice in place of bass, piano, or a lead guitar "Someday When We're Old" emerges as a majestic paean to a long romance. Adhering to standard song structures that never break the five minute mark along with rich chord inversions that ably fill the space of additional musicians and forge a unique texture, Patton is as comfortable with a shoe-gazing dirge ("Counting The Pages") as he is with a simple pop tune ("Mo Song"), proving that all those long nights singing the hits actually paid off. It's great to hear an indie artist think outside the box rather that replicate a live performance. A literate songwriter in the tradition of Jeff Buckley, Thom Yorke, Mike Errico, and Michael Stipe, Brandon Patton should be moving on to bigger and brighter pastures on the strength of this release.
© Tom Semioli

Brandon Patton's Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to a song montage from Should Confusion (mp3)


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