Minor 7th May/June 2006: Lee Rogers, Bryan Sutton, Tim Miller, Edwin McCain, Dion, Daniele Bazzani, Sean Watkins, Michael Gulezian, The Wood Brothers, Ken Hatfield, Jesse Colter, John Morgan, Mission Street Project
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

May/June, 2006

Lee Rogers, "Drawing Clocks," Zenith Cafe 106, 2006

As a boy growing up on the east coast of Ireland in a working class town with the mellifluous name of Carrickfergus, Lee Rogers got an earful of Van Morrison, one of his father's favorite singers. Whether this exposure was an act of prescience or mere musical imprinting can be debated, but no one can argue the similarity between Rogers' and Van Morrison's soulful vibe today. "Drawing Clocks," Lee Rogers' debut CD, is a version of an earlier demo CD named "Promise of Day," reworked in the studio from a raw to polished product which even adds strings, an embellishment which might seem a bit oxymoronic for an R&B recording. But it works very well, especially on the atmospheric "How Will I Sleep?," chosen by Myriad Pictures for the soundtrack of the eerie drama "The River King." One of the lyrics embedded in this haunting tune reads "There's a fine line between my love and my fear" and could very well be a thematic recap of the film, in which Ed Burns plays a cop caught between conflicting passions of sorting out a tormented past and remaining true to his work. The standout track is "Love, Love, Love," ushered in by an unhurried drone of minor chords which is then pierced by impassioned vocals sounding like Sting at his stratospheric best. Lee Rogers' songwriting is incredible, but most will be awestruck by his voice which sounds much like Paul Carrack, Paul Rodgers or Elton John... a one-uppance of Van Morrison himself.
© Alan Fark

Lee Roger's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Love, Love, Love" (mp3)
Listen to Lee Rogers at our podcast

Bryan Sutton, "Not Too Far From the Tree," Sugarhill Records SUG-CD-4001, 2006

Right off, the concept of this instrumental collection appeals to the dreamer in us all. Nashville session guitar whiz Bryan Sutton assembles a guitarist's who's who of his personal musical idols, and then performs 14 finger-flying duets with them. Sutton chooses tracks that capture as much interplay between the guitars as possible. He noted that his selections would serve to highlight the style of his heroes as well as his own interpretations of their work. It's a tall order, but there's no doubting Sutton's versatility or capability. "Not Too Far from the Tree" opens with Sutton and Dan Crary sprinting through "Forked Deer." The liner notes explain the selection as one that a fuzzy-cheeked Sutton learned from a series of teaching audio tapes years ago. And so it goes: from Norman Black to Tony Rice to Jerry Douglas -- all with their stories of pleasure and realizations. As if that's not enough, sit back and enjoy Sutton's interplay with Doc Watson ("Whiskey Before Breakfast"), Earl Scruggs ("Give Me the Roses"), and Ricky Skaggs ("Carroll County Blues"). Does anyone out there NOT love Doc Watson? But the real heart-tugger is the duet with his father -- his first guitar teacher -- recorded in his living room. Most of the tracks are recorded with a mobile unit, which lends a nice sense of intimacy to the project. It sounds "real" instead of "produced." For the guitar geeks among us, Sutton lists the guitars played throughout the project. Scruggs weighed in with a 1964 Martin D-18, one of three artists playing a D-18. Though bluegrass-based, the appeal of this joyful collection should be universal.
© Fred Kraus

Bryan Sutton's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Stoney Creek" (mp3)

Tim Miller, "Trio," 2005

Tim Miller's current release, "Trio," is quite possibly one of the most groundbreaking and enthralling collections of contemporary jazz guitar music recorded in the last decade. His distinctive sound involves the placement of a microphone near his Klein hollow chambered guitar's body, which is then blended with the traditional tones emanating from his pickups. The result of this innovative recording method is a truly distinctive guitar voice, both purely acoustic and electric at the same time, and one which is further augmented by the artist's amazing command of his instrument. Miller has a very pianistic approach to fingerboard harmony utilizing lush, intricate chord voicings reminiscent of Keith Jarrett or Bill Evans. His soaring legato style soloing, often using rich, warm violin-like sustain, allows the artist to create long fluid lines not unlike John Coltrane's archetypical sheets of sound. Both Josh Davis' spirited upright and Take Toriyama's vigorous percussion complement and elevate the guitarist's phenomenal playing. Throughout the twelve original pieces, Miller demonstrates his depth as a composer and improviser. Beautifully expressive and introspective ballads, featuring Miller's pristine acoustical sound, grace many of the compositions on this recording. On "The Trees, The Sun" the guitar takes on an ethereal bell-like quality to produce a hauntingly striking melody, echoing in one's memory long after the piece is over. Another interesting composition is "TR," a bitter sweet pastoral ballad, filled with poignant chord changes and tasteful, contemplative soloing. Other pieces like "United" and "Density One" feature blistering bop inspired excursions blending seamlessly into Hendrix inspired pentatonic riffing. Miller really knows how to build a solo alternating between rapid fire chromatic runs and stylishly executed melodic motifs. This album is filled with memorable melodies, extraordinary improvisational journeys, and unique tonal innovations. With "Trio," Tim Miller has created a recording of inimitable sound paintings joining an elite register of musicians who are changing the way we listen to music.
© James Scott

Tim Miller's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Shift" (mp3)
Listen to Tim Miller at our podcast

Edwin McCain, "Lost in America," Vanguard Records 935-2, 2006

Don't let the title fool you, platinum selling singer/songwriter Edwin McCain knows exactly where he is. McCain lives for groove on this warm amalgamation of roots rock, blue eyed soul, and contemporary folk. From the opening bar of "Gramercy Park Hotel" (a paean to American icon Babe Ruth "he was a drunkard just like me / he lived it high, he lived it low") drummer Dave Harrison and bassist Lee Hendricks literally slide into home plate, affording McCain a simmering platform to ply his broken-hearted lyrics in his I've-seen-it-all tenor. "Truly Believe" pilfers a famous Joe Walsh riff, though McCain makes it his own by the time the verses kick in with jazzy chord changes and Craig Shield's swishy B3 organ swirls. Lyrically, McCain tackles common topics (love lost, love found, good things gone bad) while managing to avoid clichés. He can kick out the jams with the best of them too, as evidenced by the blistering "My Mystery" which quotes "Strawberry Fields" then transforms into an arena rocker of Bon Jovi proportions (no disrespect intended). Larry Chaney's weeping slide guitar in the bluesy "Losing Tonight" floats somewhere between George Harrison and Duane Allman. The title track, sung partially through a car radio effect ("well I made a small fortune selling used cars / and it's buried out back in a cookie jar") emerges as a pretty pop gem abetted with simple yet infectious overlapping guitar and vocal melodies. For fellow musicians, pay close attention to McCain's vocal phrasing and inflections, he bends his notes in all the right places and punctuates his best lines with a rasp and a crackle. Kudos to engineers Noel Golden and Shawn Grove as the mix sounds like the band is in the same room. Highly recommended.
© Tom Semioli

Edwin McCain's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Losing Tonight" (mp3)

Dion, "Bronx in Blue", Dimensional Music Recordings DMR 062, 2006

Yes, it's THAT Dion. "The Wanderer" Dion. "Runaround Sue" Dion. Most of us lost track of him after his "Abraham, Martin and John" in 1968. But my-oh-my, Dion emerges from the musical footnote realm to revel in the musical baby that gave birth to rock n' roll. We're talking about the blues, and Dion walks the walk with a swagger that simply defies all expectation. On the opening cut on "Bronx in Blue," he launches into the classic "Walkin' Blues," and lets it all out -- that haunting, hypnotic rhythm, the snaky guitar leads, the smoky voice. And man-oh-man, that voice, it's just perfect. Dion never lets up once throughout this relentless collection. He channels the elegant power and simplicity of the blues, and lets these emotive tunes work their spells. By the time it's all over, he covers a dozen classics and throws in a couple of his own, just to show he still can, I guess. Liner notes provide a number of insights into the history of the tracks. Well represented are (of course) Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf, plus Lightnin' Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, Hank Williams, Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," and Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues." Even more impressively, he makes it all happen with a single guitar and a smattering of percussion. This stuff is magic.
© Fred Kraus

Dion's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Walkin' Blues" (mp3)

Daniele Bazzani, "2006", 2006

Italy has produced several excellent solo fingerstyle guitarists over the past couple years who have become well known in the international guitar community -- Franco Morone and Peppino D'Agostino are two who come quickly to mind. These players carry with them an intrinsic melodic power, even when someone like D'Agostino bangs away on his six string. On his website, none other than fingerstyle maestro Tommy Emmanuel tells us Bazzani "plays well, really well." This collection of 14 solo pieces (with singing accompaniment on the last track by Gina Fabiani, and Silvia Battisti D'Amario adding lovely viola on "The Baby") evidences various textures to Bazzani's playing, and it's a fine introduction to audiences outside Italy. Some tunes are sparse and simple in arrangement, yet strong in melody, like the melancholic "Close to the Heart", the CD's opening track; "Five Small Themes", and "La Ninna Nanna del Cannello". Bazzani lays aside the steel string in favor of nylon on the rag "Van Duser's Crawl," an homage to Guy Van Duser, and on the haunting "The Baby." Bazzani plays it thumb-hot on "Goldfingers (for Tommy c.g.p)", obviously channeling one of his heroes, and doing a pretty good job of imitation. "Inverno a Martelji" syncopates a slapped rhythm while picking out a clear melody. The playing throughout the CD is bright, clean, and with a firm sense of direction. I think I agree with Mr. Emmanuel -- Daniele Bazzani plays very well indeed.
© Kirk Albrecht

Daniele Bazzani's Website Buy it at CD Baby
Listen to "Goldfingers (For Tommy, C.G.P.)" (mp3)

Sean Watkins, "Blinders On," Sugar Hill Records SUG-CD-3988, 2005

Nickel Creek's guitarist Sean Watkins stretches his studio wings in this solo outing to compelling effect. From sonic noise to string quartet, with a bit of sound collage thrown in, he runs a seemingly effortless gamut of hard to classify indie pop. It's fun to spot the influence of Semisonic's Dan Wilson on the lonesome ballad, "I'm Sorry" and XM radio-friendly "Run Away Girl." Benmont Tench adds keyboard muscle to a number of tracks on this release. Watkins' songs focus on the simple complexities of romantic entanglements as written from a decidedly youthful perspective. This is not so much a collection of songs as it is a collection of movements, from the home studio cut-and-paste of "Happy New Year" to the string quartet snippet of "Cammac." It hangs together in a slightly disjointed way -- as if a latter-day Brian Wilson were at his shoulder at the console. Make no mistake; Watkins is a talented young studio rat, whose delicate permutations recall the overachieving Finn brothers. Some standout tracks include "Not That Bad/Blinders On" with its haunting vocal movements and Beatlesque instrumental coda, "Run Away Girl," and "No Lighted Windows," featuring a great fiddle part by Gabe Witcher. To sum it up, "Blinders On" is a rather delightful grab bag from a gifted artist who sports an emerging producer's ear.
© Steve Klingaman

Sean Watkins' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "No Lighted Windows" (mp3)

Michael Gulezian, "Concert at St. Olaf College," Timberline Music TMBR-0704, 2004

Michael Gulezian has at least four previously released CDs and recorded for John Fahey's Takoma label in the 1970s. His music simultaneously evokes optimism, shared experiences and introspection. Gulezian's tone is dynamic and varied, as he taps and slaps the guitar for percussive and harmonic effects at least as often as he picks it, either with gusto worthy of a young Leo Kottke or a hushed delicacy. On this live solo disc he plays 6- and 12-string steel guitars in several tunings. "Mile High Country" and "Little Meggie" conjure up images of stunning, unspoiled American landscapes. "Watermelon," "Tumbledweeb," the bluesy "Meandering Jelique" and a loosely interpreted "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" feature his aggressive yet skilled slide playing. There is much in Gulezian's approach to remind the listener of early John Fahey, Peter Lang and Leo Kottke, although these relationships are fraternal, rather than that of a protégé and his mentors. "My Trampoline Heart" and "Whale in the Sky" recall Joni Mitchell's guitar playing. A video on the CD includes excerpts of two tunes performed in full on the audio program, some funny stage patter and an impromptu vocal, sung onstage by Gulezian and several friends. Incorporating elements of American Primitive and New Age guitar sounds, Gulezian is a seasoned performer who deserves the attention of anyone who loves solo fingerstyle guitar.
© Patrick Ragains

Michael Gulezian's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Little Meggie (mp3)

The Wood Brothers, "Ways Not to Lose," Blue Note Records 0946 3 43120 2 8, 2006

The back photo shows the Wood brothers-eyes closed, faces heavenward-swept away in performance. It should show the boys eye to eye, grinning at each other. "Ways Not to Lose" is about joy and reckless abandon in playing music. The recording brings the sibs together for the first time after experiencing success going their separate ways (Chris in the jazz jam of Medeski Martin and Wood; Oliver in the rock group King Johnson). There's an obvious element of celebration in their reunion. Throughout, the brothers manage to maintain a playful attitude while respectfully paying homage to the blues and other American musical forms ("Angel Band" for spirituals, for example). The mischievous spirit of the title inhabits the record. Listen to the chuckling slide guitar notes that begin and end the CD's opener, "One More Day," quite a swinging tune about convincing someone not to commit suicide. Check out its dissolve to a full stop after the bridge. Or the key lyric in "Glad" ("It's good to see you / but I'll be glad to see you go"), which must take on added significance for brothers. How about this title line in a song about death, "If I die young / at least I got some / chocolate on my tongue."? The whole enterprise is rough but ready. The engineer must have been told to turn up the raw dial to eleven. Chris Wood delivers lead vocals as unrefined and dry as they come. The harmonies are never pretty. Oliver's guitar has more than a touch of the Ribot in it. Don't miss the pump organ wheeze of the harmonica in "Where My Baby Might Be." All of this in songs that keep the hook in mind ("Luckiest Man"). It's a fine line the Woods tread finely, a task made easier as Chris' bass keeps matters moving along nicely. From beginning to end, it's a hoot and a great listen. Give it the ultimate test on a road trip and you'll agree, "Ways Not to Lose" is a real winner.
© David Kleiner

The Wood Brothers' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Chocolate on My Tongue" (RealAudio)

Ken Hatfield, "String Theory," Arthur Circle Music ACM 7502, 2005

Jazz guitarist and composer Ken Hatfield turns reflective on his sixth CD, "String Theory." The quantum mechanics reference in the title serves as a strong hint of Hatfield's seriousness about this instrumental work; the titles of the movements from the title piece are "Quirks and Quarks," "The Ties That Bind," and "Sparticles". And, to be sure, Hatfield does offer some choice rewards for the serious listener. Though his main instrument is nylon-stringed classical guitar, he also duets with himself on mandolin and dobro. The result is a multi-layered work that expands upon previous classical and jazz CDs for a slight and occasional Appalacian (his roots) flavor, and only then in carefully measured doses. While "The Gospel According to Sam," the 13-movement "Snowhill Variations" and "Borges and I" all have their revealing moments, it is the intricate meanderings of mandolin and classical guitar in the title track of "String Theory" that most capture the imagination. In that work, Hatfield sounds to be peeling away the secrets of the universe and of existence, a theme revisited throughout. Impeccable technique, a confidence of presentation and an ear for intertwining somewhat disparate themes mark this collection. Equally at ease with a Wes Montgomery-style melodic run or a Bach-like fugue approach, Hatfield enjoys an edgy balancing act. © Fred Kraus

Ken Hatfield's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Sparticles" (mp3)

Jesse Colter, "Out of the Ashes," Shout Factory DK 97640, 2006

Jesse Colter is an important artist, with solo hits in the 70's and 80's. An integral member of the Outlaw Country movement, she recorded (with Waylon, Willie and Tompall Glaser) "Wanted! The Outlaws," the first country album certified platinum. But don't think of "Out of the Ashes" (her first solo release in twenty years) as a comeback album and don't dare unearth the old cliché that Jessi Colter never went away at all. The record begins and ends with spirituals, closing with a song "inspired by" the movie "Passion of the Christ," co-written and sung with her son (and Waylon's), Shooter Jennings. In between are tunes about all kinds of passion, with the worldly ones given a prominent place. There's even a faithful cover of Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" with its refrain of "everyone must get stoned." "You Can Pick 'Em" finds Colter quite able to belt out a rousing, bluesy putdown. It also introduces the band with some sizzling electric fills and nice solos on steel guitar (Robbie Turner) and harmonica (Kurt Johnson). The CD's most incandescent moment comes in Tony Jo White's "Out of the Rain." Originally recorded in the 80's but unfinished, the cut has Colter trading verses with guests. Producer Don Was risks overproduction here (bringing in an entire church choir), but-on balance-the dynamics create a dazzling effect. Quiet reigns as Colter begins her verse. After the hooky chorus fills the sonic space, everything settles back for White's verse, followed by another big chorus. When Waylon comes on after a return to quietness, expect shivers. "Velvet and Steel," sensual and suggestive, goes out to a "slow movin' daddy" who makes the singer feel "velvet inside." Note the fine interplay between the harmonica and the electric guitar. What arose out of the ashes is Jessi Colter's passion to write and record music, music about passion of all kinds both sacred and profane. Songs like "Out of the Rain" might blur that distinction but, everywhere in "Out of the Ashes," the passion is unmistakable.
© David Kleiner

Jesse Colter's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to You Can Pick 'Em (wma)

John Morgan, "Motionography", 2006

I remember hearing some of John Morgan's early recordings, enjoying the melodies, and thinking, 'these are nice songs, but his playing lacks a certain depth.' Well, with "Motionography," his fourth solo independent CD, Morgan's playing has gained lots of ground, and this is a fine collection of 13 solo acoustic guitar pieces. Perhaps those two visits to Jorma Kaukonen's Fur Peace Ranch have made a difference. His time in each song is rock solid, not floating like some new acoustic music. Morgan likes to paint pictures which really reflect the title, and there is a strong connection on many songs. For example, flowing arpeggios and harmonics grace "Moonrise," and I can picture the beginning of nighttime in the evening sky. "First Flight" appropriately opens the disk, revealing a strong right hand. Many of the songs on the CD reflect an evolving jazz sense -- "Dancing Daughter" weaves in and out of fingerpicked melody lines and rhythmic chords, with a layer of staccato bass grooving the tune, while "One Step Closer to Cool" really swings. "Dance of the Stars" is a joyful, rollicking celebration of the wonder of creation in the heavens. We flow stroke for stroke with "The Swimmer". Some of his best work is on the traditional Christmas carol, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Here, the longing and hope embedded in the song's lyrics find a voice with his fingers, while his improvisation between verses deepens the mood. © Kirk Albrecht

John Morgan's Website Buy it here
Listen to "First Flight" (mp3)

Mission Street Project, "Liberty Tree", 2005

Phil Ochs famously defined a protest song as "a song you don't hear on the radio." Before the last presidential election, that dictum still rang true, even on folk radio. Where was political music amid the backdrop of a controversial war? Erik Balkey took on a mission to produce a body of socially conscious, plainspoken music. His touchstone would be the American tradition (Woody Guthrie, union songs, mining tales of Appalachia). His sensibility would come from contemporary singer/songwriting. Balkey's vision has found its first expression in "Liberty Tree." For Balkey, a solo performer, Mission Street is a side project and, on record, a band: Balkey and his hushed tenor, vocalist Laurie McAllister (the cliché "lovely and talented" applies), and Duke Levine, master of all things stringed. Don't expect: anything uptempo, musical complexity, cuts above four minutes. Expect: insightful story songs about regular folks, co-writes with the best songwriters you probably never heard of, simple melodies, lovely harmonies, tasteful instrumental support, a few well-chosen covers, and sincerity you won't hear out of the White House. You'll also find the best darn CD package around: lyrics, chords, comments by co-writers. "Should I Go Wordless" opens. It's Balkey's declaration. He has something to say and he's gonna to say it now because he has "2,000 reasons why" (today, 2,363 and rising). One of the best songs, "Cut 'em Down" (written with Jonathan Byrd) transfers the metaphor of a clear cut (and the worker who has little choice but to take "a job cutting trees") to the war machine that "count(s) the men just like trees." The pretty "Sanctuary Road" (written with Ryder Daniels) tackles the problem of well-meaning folks who flee the city, making desirable places unaffordable for the natives. Covers of John Fogerty, Johnny Cash, and Dave Carter are also highlights. Balkey knows to keep it all simple and hum-able. Maybe he's a bit prescient, too. Since he began his project, fine protest songs from Eliza Gilkyson to James McMurtry to the Rolling Stones have hit the airways. Mission accomplished (and I really mean it!). © David Kleiner

Mission Street Project's Website Buy it at CD Baby
Listen to "You Can Stay Here" (mp3)

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