Minor 7th May/June 2013: Laurence Juber, Duck Baker, Eddie Healy, Maria Quiles & Rory Cloud, John Lowell, A Tribute to Stephen Bennett, Lizanne Knott, Ewan Dobson, Skanson & Hansen, Todd May
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May/June, 2013

Laurence Juber, "Catch LJ Live!," Solid Air Records 2013

Laurence Juber first gained the spotlight in the late 1970s as lead guitarist in Paul McCartney's group, Wings. Since then Juber has forged a successful career as an instrumentalist, composer of solo works for guitar, and interpreter of popular music. This CD/DVD package gives an excellent overview of his stage repertoire. Everything on both discs was captured in one performance in July 2009 at Alva's Showroom in San Pedro, California. As expected, Juber offers an energetic performance and stellar musicianship. His selection of material is outstanding as well, which sets him apart from many other solo guitarists. He constructs interesting and well-paced sets, combining well known pop tunes with his own compositions, the latter of which never suffer in comparison to more familiar material. Looking at the first few selections on the CD, Juber begins with his bluesy "Catch," follows it with Lieber and Stoller's classic "Stand By Me," his tune, "Cobalt Blue," then Sting's "Every Breath You Take." On first listening I detected a deliberate musical progression, indicating not only Juber's sense of pacing, but a historical progression in his selection of two iconic pop songs with a similar groove. Like the CD, the DVD begins with "Catch" as its first full-length selection, although the video program differs from the CD in several respects. A few tunes appear on only one of the discs - "Maybe I'm Amazed," "I Saw Her Standing There," and "A Spoonful of Sugar" are exclusive to the DVD, while "Little Wing," and "It's Only a Paper Moon" are only on the CD. Several of LJ's showcase pieces are included on both discs, "The White Pass Trail" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" among them. The sequencing differs on the CD and DVD, and the CD includes no stage patter, perhaps in recognition that listeners may want to experience the music differently (that is, listen to single tracks), in absence of the visual element. The entire package affirms Juber's attraction for music fans in general as well as guitarists. It's infused with the high quality his audience can expect, from the fine acoustic tone to his nearly flawless execution. Juber's fans can treasure this as a souvenir of his live shows, and it's also a great introduction to his music. Catch it.
© Patrick Ragains

Laurence Juber's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to "Guitar Noir"

Duck Baker, "Kid on the Mountain," Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop 2013

Sometimes it's great to refresh our memories of great things in the past. In the late 1970's, fingerstyle guitar music was moving out of ragtime and the blues and opening up to possibilities in jazz, traditional music, and even pop. Orginially released on Kicking Mule in 1980, "Kid on the Mountain" by Duck Baker was a delicate foray into the world of fingerpicking classic Irish, Scottish and English traditional music. Baker began to incorporate different voices for bass, melody and harmony in what at the time must have mezmerized anyone taking the time to really listen. It remains that today, and Baker's playing may not seem as clean or dizzying as many modern fingerstyle guitarists, but it retains power because of just how much damn music he brings to each song. There really is not a weak effort among the 17 cuts. We've got reels, jigs, hornpipes, and ballads to soothe the most savage beast. The title cut, "Kid on the Mountain," is a dark march with a bass line propeling us forward while the melody rises and sinks, carrying our souls. The famous Turlough O'Carolan chestnut "Sheebeg and Sheemore" is played with a melancholic deliberation and sweetness that would serve as a starting point for the countless renditions that have followed. "The Blarney Pilgrim" is served with just the right tempo and heaps of bounce that make it hard to stay in your seat. "Blind Mary" captures the voice that is missing but taken by the solo steel string guitar, and makes it easy to sing along if you know the words. At almost five minutes - by far the lomgest tune on the CD - "Lament for Limerick" is a turn of the heart looking down into the bottom of your pint. "Kid on the Mountain" is a classic that deserves to be revisited and a worthy addition to any fingerstyle collection of traditional music.
© Kirk Albrecht

Duck Baker's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "The Blarney Pilgrim"

Eddie Healy, "Direction," 2012

Classical guitarist Eddie Healy's current release "Directions" offers an alluring collection of original compositions that transcends musical genres. Healy's musical journey began at 13. He completed his bachelor's degree at North Texas State and Master's degree at Southern Methodist University. He is currently teaching at the University of Texas in Dallas, while finishing his doctorate. A truly gifted composer, Healy's diverse works can be heard on podcasts, video game scores, and even a Middle School Alma Matter. His compositions have been performed at various venues throughout Europe, Mexico, and the United States. For "Directions" Healey wrote pieces for solo and multi-guitar ensembles and envisioned his musical associates performing the pieces with him for the recording. However, time constraints required the guitarist to record each part himself. The results are nothing short of stunning with beautifully conceived and executed compositions, which will appeal to a variety of listeners. There is a cinematic quality to each sonic vignette. The rich musical landscapes that Healy creates are both intricate and accessible. The two part theme from the video game "Happee," is a piece performed by two guitars and contains elegant harmonic motifs. Each melody is intricately layered to produce dense musical landscapes. The dramatic "Invocation", performed with three guitars, uses the instrument as both a harmonic vehicle and a percussive device. "The Path of Truth" is a three part suite with delicate harmonies woven to construct dense sonorous imagery. One of the true standouts on this recording, one with many standouts, is the reflective and intimate solo piece "Night is a Rope." Eddie Healy's recording "Direction" is a triumph, offering the listener accessible compositions matched by immaculate performances. While clearly classically trained, Healy's work should also please all listeners of acoustic guitar music.
© James Scott

Eddie Healy's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Direction"
Listen to Eddie Healy at our podcast

Maria Quiles & Rory Cloud, "Long Time Coming," 2012

This San Francisco-based duo has some lovely original songs that are complemented by Maria Quiles' smooth-as-honey lead vocal and Rory Cloud's well-blended harmonies. Maria's voice has been compared to Gillian Welch and while her understated vibrato shows a bit of that, she doesn't have that old-time twang that Welch employs. I'm not sure it would benefit their songs, anyway, since most of them have a contemporary feel. Using only their acoustic guitars and voices on this cleanly recorded EP, they present a contemplative collection of intimate songs about relationships. "Our Own Way" features Maria on a delicately picked acoustic guitar, leaving lots of space for Rory's tasteful and subtle lead guitar. "Long Way Home" is a plea for a lover to return: "'Cause I fell in too deep / Yeah, I sank into an ugly low-down sleep / And that silence entered on its wings / Sayin' come back to me now." Heartbreaking and much more emotional than a simple "I miss you, please come home." On "Tenderly," they sing about wanting to stay with a lover. The bridge rises above the verses, making for a poignant break. Most of the songs have a similar arrangement and hum along at the same mellow dynamic. With the appealing way that Maria's voice slides around a bit on some of the melodies, I'm wondering how a bluesy presentation would sound on one or two cuts. A song like their "Come On Up to the House" would sound great in a bluegrass or old-time format with strummed guitars and perhaps a little flat picking. All in all, though, this is a great first effort by a talented duo. I look forward to hearing more from them.
© Jamie Anderson

Maria Quiles & Rory Block's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Long Time Coming"
Listen to Maria Quiles & Rory Block at our podcast

John Lowell, "I Am Going to the West," 2012

Admittedly it has been awhile since I have spent much time listening to bluegrass music. Sure, I will get a hankering ever now and again for a bit of Flying Burrito Brothers or some Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, maybe even some Alison Krauss and Union Station, but to say I am a bluegrass fan is a stretch. After spending a great deal of time with John Lowell's new solo release, "I Am Going To The West," I can honestly say bluegrass is now in my regular listening rotation. Lowell flat-picks and sings with panache and a musicality that transcends genres. It is darn near impossible to not be swept up in the ebullient and charismatic vibe that this man lays down on toe tapers like "Waterbound", "The Rhythm Of The Wheels" and "Where The Heart Is". That is not to say he doesn't tug at the heartstrings from time to time on originals "Laura Foster" and "Am I Not Enough". Perhaps Lowell's finest moments are on the stories he weaves so well on the tunes "Buffalo Skinners" and "Laura Foster". Using his considerable vocal abilities to craft unison of effortless melody and superb musicianship as well as songwriting artistry, Lowell demonstrates considerable musical prowess that is subtly astounding in its intricacy and sweetness. The CD culminates with a title track that is at once enchanting and haunting, featuring piano, low whistle and harmony vocals. Vocally Lowell is often reminiscent of David Wilcox and Chris Hillman, a combination that adds up to a vocal presence filled with sweetness and integrity. No newcomer to the bluegrass scene, John Lowell is slowly establishing a recording catalog and performance accolades as half of the mandolin/guitar duo Growling Old Men and the bluegrass band Kane's River in addition to his solo efforts. A quick search of the Internet will produce stellar performances on the PBS Shows 11th and Grant and A Prairie Home Companion appearance.
© James Filkins

John Lowell's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Eight More Miles To Louisville"

Various Artists, "The Water is Wide (A Tribute to Stephen Bennett)," Harp Guitar Music 2012

The Water Is Wide is an homage not just to a musician but to an unusual instrument. Stephen Bennett is one of the greatest practitioners of the harp guitar, which has a separate "arm" with extra unfretted bass strings that can be used for plucking. The 15 tracks are performed by musicians for whom Bennett has been mentor, friend, and inspiration. "The Tunesmith," composed and performed by Gregg Miner (who also produced the CD), ebbs and flows like water, capturing the impressionistic quality of Bennett's pieces, and is played on his first Kathy Wingert harp guitar. Andy Wahlberg's "Bennett Diction" is intricate and jazzy, while Don Alder's "Man from Lady Lane" exploits the rumbling dronelike effects and lush sound that are the special characteristics of this kind of guitar. "G Wiz" by Frank Doucette uses "Bennett tuning" (which Doucette explains is characterized by a high G), while Hirokatsu Takai's Asian-influenced "Yokohama SB" emphasizes high-pitched tones. Other musicians play Bennett's compositions: Pete Bradshaw gives a lovely rendition of "Waltz for a Maple Tree" and Larry Berwald (resonator) and Gregg Miner (harp guitar) duet on "I Knew It Was You." Tommy Emmanuel's arrangement of the traditional "Aura Lee" is a standout, stuffed with superfast runs, jazzy sections, mixed tempos, and Hawaiian-sounding slides. To top it off, the title track extends Bennett's original 1999 recording of "The Water Is Wide" to include 58 musicians, many of whom are regulars at the annual Harp Guitar Gathering, which Bennett founded - all obsessed with this fascinating instrument.
© Céline Keating

Harp Guitar Music's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Reprise for Stephen"

Lizanne Knott, "Standing in the English Rain," 2012

The fragile edge of Lizanne Knott's voice suits the theme of the precariousness of the human condition pervading her latest release "Standing in the English Rain" (see also my 2005 review of Knott's "Under the Burning Sky"). But Knott demonstrates, in the opener -- Nathan Bell's uptempo "Stone's Throw Away" -- that she can spit out some attitude, too. It's a driving number with topical relevance and stark images ("The family next door they pulled out…/ the wind just blows through that house") and the full Nashville treatment down to the dobro. It's a great start, a gutsy choice for an artist best known for introspective originals like the next track, "Be Careful with My Heart" ("I am not bulletproof / I am no acrobat"). This acoustic country take opens with a guitar and mandolin duet and features a lovely fiddle break with a six-string response. Clearly one of the CD's standout songs, it appears as a reprise and again in the last cut. The album is front-loaded country, but variety is a cornerstone of producer Glen Barratt. The very different reprise of "Be Careful…" showcases some trademark Barratt moves. Listen at about 1:45 as an electric guitar plays virtually the same break as the fiddle in the earlier version then melds into a delicate call and response of arpeggios with an acoustic. Check out the slinky bass line that opens "Jello Shot" and the guitar fills and effects laden solo that provide a harder edge. It's classic Barratt, weaving tracks in and out in the service of his arrangements. (Full disclosure: Barratt produced my CD "This Human Heart.") Other favorites? "Go On," puts Knott's breakable vocals in front of a wall of sound. I put it on repeat after the first listening. The appealing call and response vocals and humor ("I bruised my knees with the faithful…") in "Three Steps Shy" leaven the tension of an album that veers between hope and hopelessness while balancing on a musical tightrope.
© David Kleiner

Lizanne Knott's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Stones Throw Away"

Ewan Dobson, "World Candies," 2012

With his musical output growing at an astounding rate, fingerstyle guitarist phenom Ewan Dobson is at it again, this time with his unusually eclectic album entitled "World Candies". If you don't already know who Ewan Dobson is, a brief introduction should at the very least mention that he's already proven himself as a world-class classical guitarist, he's equally comfortable as a blazingly fast shredder on the electric guitar, and of course, he's one of the world's most talented composers and performers of fingerstyle acoustic guitar music. This time Dobson has drawn on a wealth of new influences by exploring the traditional and ethnic music from a list of almost two dozen countries, including Finland, Scotland, Serbia, Mexico, Russia, Romania, Portugal, and Latvia, just to name a few. In order to cover so much ground in one disc the tracks are tastefully brief, usually between one and three minutes, allowing Dobson just enough time to deliver his unique perspective on the various differing themes. The works are often strongly juxtaposed with one another, guiding the listener playfully between various styles and moods. Despite the confines of each musical genre, Dobson isn't afraid to let his own personality shine through, allowing his unique tastes to emphasise the elements he finds most inspiring in each style. Throughout there's no doubt that this is Ewan Dobson on the guitar, no matter what country he's visiting. And yes, in true Dobson fashion, this album is rife with what we've all come to expect from him: explosive alternate picking sections, chugging rhythm guitar, and dizzyingly fast sweep arpeggios. If, like me and so many others out there, you simply can't get enough of what Ewan can and will do on a guitar, then you need to add this disc to your library!
© Timothy Smith

Ewan Dobson's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Dziadunio Polka"

Skanson & Hansen, "Wood," 2012

It is a daunting and risky task to present a repertoire consisting of classics from multiple genres without wandering into the quagmire of mundanity and hackneyed expression that befalls so many would-be interpretative musicians. Darren Curtis Skanson and Gregg Hansen have forged a bond that consists of the steel, nylon and wood that has resulted in what can only referred to as a sonic symbiosis. With four hands that create a musical tapestry of interwoven textures, they have become one of the most pleasing and entertaining guitar duos performing and recording today. A keen ability to arrange and find a subtle uniqueness or "la différence" in each piece they weave their magic into sets them at the top of heap of today's instrumental interpreters. The opening track of their new CD, "Wood," a refined rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" that captures the joy that is at once exhilarating and aching with an understated power opens the door to the symbiotic artistic chemistry that exists between these two musicians. Whether this is an effortless collaboration or the product of painstaking rehearsal is irrelevant from the listens perspective. It is enough to know that it exists and can be found in abundance on this their third release. Once again Skanson & Hansen have pulled together an eclectic range of titles to imbue with new life from Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" to Duke Ellington's "Caravan" and Willie Nelson's "Crazy". Liner notes include details and stories about both Hansen's and Skanson's guitars, an added treat for guitar players. It is perhaps with a bit of irony that it is the original tunes on the collection like "Raspberry Jam", "Milk Machine" and "Drift Away" that really pique my interest, and leave me wistfully hoping that these two artists will produce a CD of all originals somewhere down the road in what will surely be a long association.
© James Filkins

Skanson & Hansen's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Breckenridge Morning Sunshine"

Todd May, "Rickenbacker Girls," 2013

Todd May's "Rickenbacker Girls" emerges from this often-troubled century as a work of hope in two very distinct aspects. First, here's a young singer/songwriter/guitarist who composes and sings like he cares, with themes that compel us to care about what he cares about. It is fairly rare - and gratifying -- to run across someone with talent on this level at such an early career stage. So the good news is this: Todd May's CD is testament that musicians like this exist now, today, in 2013 - so surely there are others like him honing their craft, transferring emotions into the ether, waiting to be heard, waiting to be discovered. The second aspect of hope boils down to the songs themselves, which come off as real stories of love and loss, of leaving and letting go. You can forget about pretense with this artist. The title track pays homage to the girls that May encountered at his high school. As he says: "I came to know them with their dialects and freckles. Some were expressive. Some were guarded. And they always had to leave. They always went away." He may make you recall the poetry of a young Jackson Browne, though with an earnest, scratchy voice; he's alt-country with a heart, riding on a heartland vibe. Think Big Star meets Jeff Tweedy. Americana soul. Born in Kentucky, May now makes his home in Columbus, Ohio. He fronted and toured extensively with The Lilybandits in the 1990s. In 2009, he began collaborating with Lydia Loveless. "Rickenbacker Girls" is his first solo CD. His liner notes entertain and illuminate in their own right. Of the eighth cut on his CD, "Still Better Than You Ever thought It Be," May writes: "Somebody said sex is like pizza - good pizza is an incredible experience - bad pizza is still pretty … good. Being alive is just like sex and pizza." Of "Mercy," he writes, "My grandma says, ‘we were poor as Job's goat.' There's a lot of hope in a cry for mercy." Be sure to check out the fine guitar work by Jamey Ball on the CD's closer, "Sunday Morning," pairing with some soulful Fender Rhodes keys by Mark Spurgeon. Speaking of hope, I hope May finds some success. And I hope you find him. Be a believer.
© Fred Kraus

Todd May's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "St. Albans Girl"

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