Minor 7th May/June 2008: Tommy Emmanuel, Eltjo Haselhoff, Eva Scow & Dusty Brough, Antoine Dufour, Down the Line, Jeff Titus, Mara & David, Jay Umble, Yamandu Costa, Mike Dowling, David Grier, Gwilym Morus, Brooks Williams
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

May/June, 2008

Tommy Emmanuel, "Center Stage," Favored Nations, 2008

Those who have seen Tommy Emmanuel live know very well that there is a huge difference between the terms "guitarist" and "performer." On his new live double-CD entitled "Center Stage," the uninitiated can get a virtual peek into a TE show and share in the unbridled enthusiasm this incredible showman infuses into each and every gig. The emcee introducing this particular performance proclaims Emmanuel's music to be "acoustic music in your face"... and Emmanuel must indeed often look into an audience to see a roomful of dropped jaws or enraptured expressions. Despite the "in your face" reference, Emmanuel has more than one volume and one voice. His elegant touch on "The Finger Lakes," "And So It Goes," "Ruby's Eyes" and "Questions" proves that his sensitivity more than rivals his intensity. Still, the more subdued numbers seem to garner a more subdued applause, and the real crowd-pleasers are those which feature his trademark and lightning-fast contrapuntal Travis/Chet attack, especially "Train to Duesseldorf," "I Go To Rio," "Happy Hours" and a Beatles medley featuring "When I'm 64," "Day Tripper," and "Lady Madonna." One can scarcely believe one's ears, and though he's made a career upon this kind of guitar prestidigitation, here is witnessed confirmation that it's not some trickery of digital mastering. Tommy does do something quite novel on "Center Stage" -- he experiments with ambient sounds using only acoustic guitar and reverb -- sounding amazingly as if he is using multiple loops and effects processors. "Initiation" is one such foray into a rhythmic drama which successfully reaches for mood over flash, and is reminiscent of Michael Kelsey's live improv work. TE similarly morphs "Mombasa," a staple from his "Only" release, into a surprising aboriginal and percussive piece of fiery passion. Several things come over on "Center Stage" that do not on Emmanuel's previous studio releases -- his sincerity for his mission, appreciation of his fans, and the degree of flawless mastery he holds over his instrument. Someday, you need to treat yourself to a Tommy Emmanuel concert, but if you can't, get "Center Stage."
© Alan Fark

Tommy Emmanuel's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Lenny Bro'" (mp3)

Eltjo Haselhoff, "Guitar Magic," Solid Air Records, 2008

Eltjo Hasselhoff opens his 14-track collection, "Guitar Magic," with a delightfully nasty blues riff before launching into a slithery romp he calls "White Lighting." The fingerstylist and composer displays his ease with a variety of musical genres on his second CD for Solid Air. Following the breathless dazzle of the first song on this instrumental solo CD is a tune which unfolds like a tree, then an orchard, of magnolia blossoms, "Promised Land." With hints of Aaron Copland, it evokes the spirit and mixed heritage of the early 20th-century immigrants who ventured with hope and trepidation into America. Beautiful, melodic, melancholy, hopeful -- he nails this one. Haselhoff's liner notes lend a bit of insight into his work and thought processes, along with his choice of guitar, strings and tunings. Eleven of the compositions are his own, including an homage of sorts to James Taylor, "Song for JT," and a nod to Chet Atkins, with the bouncy "Lenentine." He also includes two tracks by Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738). He goes a bit over the top with a slightly nutty take of "Turkey in the Straw," in which he throws in some fiddle and a jaunty, thumping bass. Be prepared to enjoy impeccable technique, a wonderful sense of melody, a warm tone and a sense of translating the ethereal as well as the real into music. Haselhoff knows his craft, and can discuss it with great clarity -- as evidenced by the lessons, guidance and commentary (and humor!) on his website. He counts Paul Simon, James Taylor and Tommy Emmanel among his influences and idols. Interestingly enough, guitar isn't even Hasselhoff's day job. He holds a Ph.D in physics and continues to publish in his field. He professes never to have had a guitar teacher, being self-taught beginning at age 8. However that combination of events and experiences boiled down, the product of "Guitar Magic" shows it to be undeniably successful.
© Fred Kraus

Eltjo Haselhoff's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to "White Lightning" (mp3)

Eva Scow & Dusty Brough, "Sharon By The Sea," 2007

Bill Monroe might wonder just what he was listening to if he heard "Sharon by the Sea" featuring Eva Scow on mandolin and Dusty Brough on guitars, since it sounds like nothing the Father of Bluegrass ever recorded. Classical and jazz elements permeate the disk, and the two principal players are masters of their craft, to be sure. They are surrounded by a seasoned group of supporting players on keyboards, bass, percussion and strings. The opening cut "bird with beastlike qualities" weaves an almost flamenco feel with Scow and Brough alternating blistering arpeggios, then retreating to the simple melody at a more human pace. Brough uses both nylon string and electric guitars on the disk for various jazz textures to good effect. The title track "Sharon by the Sea" uses a staccato phrase as an anchor for point-counterpoint interplay from mandolin and guitar. "Sketches of Terry" features some fine cello work by Mark Summer, while "Rudolfo" is a slow and sultry tango with Scow playing the melody clean and cool. These two players obviously are comfortable with each other. "Theoretically Speaking" sizzles like a warm Latin breeze on a cool evening. Scow shows throughout the CD her study in the music of choro from Brazil with its flowing rhythms and easy pace. Mandolin is exploring more and more musical ideas lately, and this effort by Eva Scow, along with guitarist Dusty Brough, reveals that there are no boundaries for good music.
© Kirk Albrecht

Eva Scow's Website | Dusty Brough's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Bird With Beastlike Qualities" (mp3)

Antoine Dufour, "Existence," CandyRat Records, 2007

Heart-pounding slaps and rattles, driving rhythms, bass lines that contrast and yet still support soothing extended harmonies, and beautiful melodies flowing just beyond the realm of the lyrical; these are the things I secretly long for every time I put a new CD from CANDyRAT Records in my player, and this is exactly what Antoine Dufour delivers in his latest release 'Existence'. This is Dufour's third release with the label, and it is just as striking and distinctive as his first two. As I closed my eyes, sat back, and let each track fill the room, my satisfied grin never subsided. Dufour has subtle and effortless way of transitioning his compositions in just a few short seconds from energetic and uplifting to a soulful warm nostalgia. While melodic and accessible to any listener, his music is at the same time extremely complex both texturally and harmonically. Dufour is clearly a musician who deeply understands the nature of the guitar, exploring many facets of the instrument throughout the disc, ranging from angular rhythmic attacks, to long fluid arpeggios, to melodies speckled with bright ringing harmonics. It almost goes without saying that, from a technical standpoint, Dufour executes these demanding works with a relaxed confidence that only serves to magnify and strengthen his connection with the listener. So struck was I by this recording, that soon after listening to it I went to www.candyrat.com and purchased the official sheet music so I could add it to my own repertoire. Those out there already familiar with CANDyRAT Records know exactly what I am talking about, and for those who may not be familiar with the label or fingerstyle acoustic guitar music, there could be no better introduction than this CD.
© Timothy Smith

Antoine Dufour's Website Buy it at CandyRat Records
Listen to "30 Minutes in London" (mp3)

Down the Line, "Home Alive," 2008

Down The Line is woodentop pop, a party in an acoustic guitar. This live album is a perfect vehicle to showcase the fact. Recorded in a hometown Chicago club, the disc sparkles with the sheer energy of youthful performance. The recording captures their essence with excellent fidelity. I can't understand how some reviewers have compared this band to Crosby Stills and Nash. They are far closer to early seventies semi-acoustic Doobie Brothers (when Ken Johnston was the primary vocalist), to Billy Joel's vocal fugue in "Uptown Girl," and even to those Jersey Boys, the Four Seasons, than to anything folkie. At their most rootsy, they bear a slight echo of the Subdudes, especially Tommy Malone, though the drumming of Derek Fawcett on his djembe bears an echo of the 'Dudes Steve Amedée as well. The other current comparison for woodentop exuberance might be Seattle's The Senate. All four members of Down The Line can sing -- no studio enhancements needed. They do not have a single stand-out presence but seem to share the limelight relatively equally. The release contains a generous 17 cuts, which together lend a you-are-there flair to the outing. Standouts include the opener, "Martyr," the Doobies-inspired "Change Your Mind," "Last Call," and "Here I Am," with its inspired violin solo by Dan Myers. The fact that Down The Line generates all this excitement in an acoustic ensemble reinforces the honesty of their showmanship. They are good players, too, having too much fun with acoustic guitars on the cover of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World." As I said, they are pop soulsters at heart. Oh, on one song, "Used To Be," they used a pedal steel. Is that cheating?
© Steve Klingaman

Down the Line's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Martyr" (mp3)

Jeff Titus, "Wood Dragon," 2007

If you're looking for a different sonic experience in acoustic guitar music, "Wood Dragon" by Jeff Titus is a CD you should not pass by. While Titus plays some traditional fingerstyle, the centerpiece of the disc is one of Fred Carlson's unique multi-stringed instruments, in this case a 24-string harp sympitar. The far-ranging tonal qualities possible with the sympitar are evident on the opening cut, the title track "Wood Dragon." There is an almost Japanese koto-like character to the higher strings as they open the song, and provide accents throughout, as Titus keeps the groove through tapping, while letting the bass strings drone in sustain under the melody. Harp guitar master Gregg Miner adds to this Japanese flavor on a traditional Guzheng. Titus covers Michael Hedges' "Chava's Song" in all its deliberate lyrical beauty on the sympitar. The other cuts featuring the sympitar are "Sunset, New Moon," an ethereal wisp capturing the glow of evening becoming the gleam of night, and "Silent Return," a short reflection that picks up themes from "Chava's Song" while allowing Titus room to dance his tapping fingers up and down the fretboard. This might be Titus' CD, but he's not afraid to allow his musical collaborators space to shine, like on "Just A Position," where his strumming lays the base for Michael Manring's fretless bass explorations to weave the melody. "The Glass" features Drew Youngs on guitar, who helped Titus in composing and arranging the CD's songs. "Wood Dragon" presents all kinds of guitar landscapes, and its 12 tracks serve as a reminder of the power of strings - few or many - in the hands of a creative artist.
© Kirk Albrecht

Jeff Titus' Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Wood Dragon" (mp3)

Mara & David, "Sixteen Secrets," Ozella Music, 2007

Fifteen songs... "Sixteen Secrets"... The bonus secret is Mara and David, a German twosome virtually unknown here. David -- a classically trained guitarist -- propels the tunes, playing unusually percussively on nylon strings. His instrument -- the band -- provides everything from the bottom ("High") to the lead ("Maybe It's Me"). Mara slinks ("Masquerade"), scats ("Just a Game,"), raps ("High"), and emotes ("Someone Who Loves"). Together Mara and David can cover a lot of musical ground with swing and chops. If you must, think of them as a muscular Tuck and Patti on mushrooms. To understand what these two can do, start with the original "Just a Game." It opens innocently, with delicate broken arpeggios and a whispered invitation from Mara about "a little fooling around." David starts up a bass line before the tune expands into a full out Motown groove. Notice how he maintains the bass line throughout while varying where he strikes on the second to fourth beats, but always hitting the one. Mara's vocals are effectively seductive ("Let's play hide and seek... I know all your favorite hiding places") in front of an unstoppable groove. Next, check out the opening track, "Complete With Myself." Its opening strike foreshadows the drama these two artists bring to the tracks that follow such as Ani DiFranco's dramatic "Jukebox." Covering this most American of singer/songwriters makes both a logical and a surprising choice. Surprising for a Dresden duo. Logical because David has a strong affinity for DiFranco's famously percussive, idiosyncratic voicings, sometimes capturing them note for note. Mara showcases the unexpected beauty of the melody. Working in English on most of the tunes creates lyrical charm ("you try to spare this to your heart"), some missteps ("Trust the parrot, he'll lead our fate."), and more than the occasional revelation ("This time, I did not fall on my feet."). With this impressive debut, Mara & David land in America , and on their feet. The secrets are out.
© David Kleiner

Mara & David's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes or Ozella Music(Europe)
Listen to "Complete with Myself" (mp3)
Listen to Mara & David at our podcast

Jay Umble, "Spirit Crossing," 2007

Jay Umble's current release, "Spirit Crossing," is an adult contemporary / world beat collaboration with international percussionist, Jamey Haddad. Umble studied with Pat Martino and Joe Diorio and is currently teaching at both Brucknell and Susquehanna Universities. He is also the author of several instructional books for Mel Bay and performs throughout the central Pennsylvania area with his traditional and contemporary trio projects. Jamey Haddad is a Fulbright recipient and has played with David Liebman, Paul Simon, and the Paul Winter Consort. He also teaches at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Throughout the recording, Haddad produces dense rhythmic backdrops for the guitarist's delicate, melodic excursions. While Umble's playing is fluid and masterful, he forgoes extended improvisations in order to create lush, rich, harmonic soundscapes. The album is a perfect study in elegant understatement, where his inspired soloing does not overshadow the inherent beauty of the compositions. Noteworthy contributions are also made by JD Walter on vocals, Andy Alonso, Mike Bitts and Steve Meashey on bass, and Andy Roberts on keyboards. This recording is an effortless listen, with thoroughly engaging compositions and performances at every juncture. The opening, "Falling Water," fills the room with rich, dramatic imagery reminiscent to the vintage ECM recordings of the seventies. "Kim" is a pleasant duet with nice Brazilian inflections offering subtle echoes of the late Baden Powell. The playful "Flashback" finds the duo in a Pat Metheny mode with Umble melodically "rocking out" to Haddad's supportive backbeat. "Spirit Crossing" is an eclectic array of sonic explorations blending Jazz, Rock, Pop, Folk, and World into a cohesive collection of alluring music. This is a recording that has tremendous commercial potential, without reverting to cliché-driven predictability. The compositions are particularly captivating with memorable melodies and interesting textures, which should please listeners with a wide variety of musical tastes.
© James Scott

Jay Umble's Website Buy it at CD Universe
Listen to "Narragansett" (mp3)
Listen to Jay Umble at our podcast

Yamandu Costa, "Ida E Volta," GHA Recordings, 2008

There is a very sweet nostalgia that washes over me upon listening to the opening strains of Yamandu Costa's "Ida E Volta." It took a few turns of the disc to realize that the reminiscent vibe being conjured by Costa was from a cassette tape I'd bought in 1981 -- John McLaughlin's "Belo Horizonte." This was McLaughlin's first very successful experimentation with moods and polyrhythms that recalled Astor Piazzolla, Django Reinhardt and Hermeto Pascoal, some of Costa's biggest musical heroes and obvious stylistic influences. Costa, a 27 year old guitar virtuoso who was born near the border of Brazil and Argentina, has immersed his life and soul in the gaucho and tango, and so holds an authentic cultural credential that trumps even McLaughlin's expert flirtations with those musical forms. "Ida E Volta" is a riveting collection of six trios featuring Costa on 7-string guitar, Nicola Krassik on violin and Guto Wirtti on double-bass, five solo guitar pieces and one duo with bass. Some ("Xodó da Baiana," "Ida e Volta," "Encerdando") replicate the spirit of the tango á la Piazzolla, others ("Se ela Perguntar," "Missionerita," "Jangadeirao") are more traditionally Brazilian. The easiest on American jazz ears are "Temporal," "Cebolão" and "Sampa," Costa on these numbers demonstrating an awe-inspriing mastery of unconventional rhythms and classical techniques. Fans of Biréli Lagrène and Egberto Gismonti will be pleased with "Ida E Volta," on which Yamandu Costa proves that his name is quite worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as these two influential modern icons.
© Alan Fark

Yamandu Costa's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Temporal" (mp3)

Mike Dowling, "The Blues Ain't News," 2008

Mike Dowling has worked with Vassar Clements, Joe Venuti, Jethro Burns, guested frequently on Minnesota Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion, and released a number of fine solo recordings and instructional media for Homespun and Acoustic Music Resource. His skillful picking goes down smooth as butter, whether he's playing swing, country blues or a 50s pop song. The music on this CD is emotionally rich and a pleasure from beginning to end. Mike plays guitar both "straight" and bottleneck, fingerstyle and with a pick, on both wood-bodied and National instruments. He's joined on several tracks by John Miller (guitar), Orville Johnson (mandolin), Grant Dermody (harmonica), and Cary Black (bass). There's a strong dose of blues here, including "It Hurts Me Too" (with reworked lyrics), the title tune, "Blue Harvest Blues" and "Drop Down Mama." The latter two performances are masterpieces of rhythmic subtlety and variation. Other highlights include "Miss the Mississippi and You," rendered as a sensitive guitar/mandolin duet, "Good Woman's Love," and "Sermonette," on which Dowling plays slide, backed by John Miller. Dowling's singing is pleasant and unmannered which is a plus with this blues-flavored program. The uncluttered arrangements, combined with the musicians' relaxed approach carry a good deal of emotional weight. Dowling once again provides a lesson in finesse for musicians and great listening for anyone lucky enough to get within earshot.
© Patrick Ragains

Mike Dowling's Website Buy it here
Listen to "The Blues Ain't News to Me" (mp3)

David Grier, "Live at the Linda," 2008

One man and a guitar can make a lot of music, as evidenced by the fluid David Grier on his latest release, "Live at the Linda," where Grier treats a small gathering to a special evening of wood and steel. Grier follows in the footsteps of men like Clarence White and Tony Rice who took bluegrass guitar out of its major chord limitations, exploring a mélange of styles and textures, all the while never straying too far from the root. Grier has been an admired picker for years for his ability to flow in and out of the melody while charting new paths. His seminal work with the acoustic music supergroup Psychograss has found fertile soil in the imaginations of players far and wide. On "Live at the Linda," Grier mixes folksy humor with captivating melodies. Every cut is a chestnut, from the opening "Have You Ever Been to England," to the standard "Red Haired Boy" (a musical exploration itself). Most of the songs don't dazzle with flash, but rather demonstrate a man at peace with his instrument, serving the music and listener alike. Grier doesn't rely so much on blistering single note runs as deft cross-picking. He plays a sweet version of Roberta Flack's hit from the 70's "Killing Me Softly," and a medley of "America the Beautiful" with the Beatles' "Yesterday" which flow seamlessly together, staying close to the original melodies. Grier does heat things up a bit at the end of the concert in the encore, where he begins to build some momentum on "Bonaparte's Retreat," then lets it rip on "Randy Lynn Rag" where his power, speed, and clarity just plain leave you shaking your head. I'm not sure what the audience paid for tickets for this show, but it's worth the price of admission to get the CD.
© Kirk Albrecht

David Grier's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Crossing the Cumberlands / Old Ebenezer Scrooge medley" (mp3)

Gwilym Morus, "Word on the Border," 2007

When most American music fans think of notable Welsh exports, the first names that probably come to mind are Tom Jones, Super Furry Animals, and Jem. Perhaps singer/songwriter/guitarist Gwilym Morus can nudge his way into that select group with "Word"... despite the fact that he sounds nothing like the aforementioned references! Rendered in both Welsh and English, Morus is a master of understated moods built upon simple motifs which bob and weave through his guitar lines and vocal melodies. Like many post-modern folk singers Morus incorporates older styles with more contemporary pop sensibilities. By way of a whispering croon, juxtaposed arpeggios rendered on guitar and banjo, and legato vocal lines, "Drowning In Words" is most evocative of the classic, hushed intensity of Nick Drake or Eddie Vedder on one of his many acoustic forays into social commentary. "You're the One That I Adore" employs a rusty vocal delivery (Tom Waits, early Bob Dylan) that certainly embellishes this dirge of love -- aspiring troubadours would be advised to emulate this rarely used technique. No true folk artist would be without an autobiographical traveling song in their respective set-list, which is where "Leaving Town" excels as Morus once again meshes contrasting arpeggios with a four-to-the-bar backbeat and brief string interludes (Sarah Collick) which give the aural impression of movement. Waxing political and personal on the ballad "Life Is Yours" Morus double-tracks his baritone with a falsetto line which artfully mimics the presence of a female co-vocalist -- another wise move. Other than an occasional bass drum, the buoyant rhythms on this collection all emanate from Morus' guitar strumming and picking and his penchant for a slightly-ahead-of-the-beat vocal delivery -- yet another smart technique for buskers who can't afford a band. Fiddle player Collick shines on "Yn Y Pen Draw" harmonizing with Morus' mournful melodies with no other instrumental accompaniment. A perfect album for a rainy day, "Word On The Border" is an intriguing listen and a fine tutorial for solo singer/songwriters seeking new ways to get their material across to an audience, be it an open mic or top billing.
© Tom Semioli

Gwilym Morus' Website Buy it here
Listen to "Yn Y Pen Draw" (mp3)

Brooks Williams, "The Time I Spend With You," 2008

"The Time I Spend with You," Brooks Williams’s seventeenth album, slithers out of the gate with the title track, a smoky and sophisticated original that evokes the bluesier side of James Taylor. That same warmth and control that Taylor possesses pervades the majority of Williams’s vocal performances on the album. He croons soft and low on the Walker and Arnold standard "You Don’t Know Me," once a hit for Ray Charles, his lush and crisp slide and acoustic guitars shading and coloring, prodding and punctuating all the while. The comparison to Taylor hangs like a mist in the air even when Williams tears it up with more down-home fare, such as Fred McDowell’s "61 Highway" or Blind Willie McTell’s "Statesboro Blues." Williams is at his most charming, however, on the melancholy "Martha," a melody Paul McCartney might have written. And he rocks his hardest on "Same Ol’ Me," a surprise thirteenth track, where he’s accompanied by wailing harmonica and soulful background vocals. But Williams’s voice is only part of the story. What sets "The Time I Spend with You" apart is really the tasteful and compelling guitar work. Williams demonstrates his fingerpicking chops on "Johnny’s Farewell," a tune written for friend and fiddle legend Johnny Cunningham. On the instrumental "Vagabond Blues," he strides confidently and masterfully on resonator guitar, accompanied only by acoustic bass. Finally, Williams fingerpicks and string-slaps his merry way through an arrangement of "Beaumont Rag," which he learned from the flatpicking of Doc Watson. Tracks like these make you wish there was a little more playing and a little less... Well, you know... Singing!
© Chip O'Brien

Brook William's Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to "Rich Tonight" (mp3)

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