Minor 7th July/August 2004: Bob Schneider, Philip Hii, Railroad Earth, John Petrucci & Jordan Rudess, Steve Baughman, Paul Geremia, Pete Teo, Jerry Kosak, Sam Bush, Jaquie Gipson, Eric Elias, Ben Woolman
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

July/August, 2004

Bob Schneider, "I'm Good Now", Shockorama 79762-2 2004

"I'm Good Now" is relentlessly hook-driven, unapologetically radio ready, and diligent about highlighting its sing-able choruses. Virtually all of these tunes have the required drive, double entendres ("Come with Me Tonight"), and attitude ("I can see God on a cloud in the sky/ ... with a great big grin and some good cocaine"). But when's the last time you heard a pop song with a line like "he's booger sugar and devil's meat / hard as boardwalk bubblegum / smooth as 151"? This is not your teenager's music. Listen to the off the beat electric guitar accents on "A Long Way to Get." Check out the David Gray like interplay between programmed percussion and piano that kicks off "Piggyback." Or Schneider's gravel voiced scatting on the Beatlesque "Getting Better." Many of the songs are built on acoustic guitar: the opening arpeggios of "Come with Me Tonight;" the strummed chords that start "Medicine," the Cotton picking in "A Long Way to Get," the bass runs that start the title track until it morphs into something completely different. Though Schneider is listed as co-producer, he generously gives the bulk of the credit to co-producer Billy Harvey, who "played the majority of the music on this CD." Schneider 's lyrics offer an uneasy mix of cynic ("turns out it was a glass of see ya laterade" from "Gold in the Sunset") and idealist ("A Long Way to Get"). That combination finds its greatest manifestation in the album's final, hidden track, "Love is Everywhere," which sounds like something from the pen of Randy Newman. This record brims with surprises, twists, turns, and clever arrangement ideas. Schneider's music is accessible, entertaining, tuneful, thoughtful, challenging, and very, very good now.
© David Kleiner

Bob Schneider's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Come With Me Tonight (RealAudio)

Philip Hii, "Frederic Chopin's Nocturnes", GSP Recordings 1024, 2004

Classical guitarists have long sought a composer whom they may hail as the Chopin of the guitar. While some liken Francisco Tárrega's beautiful yet understated melodies and reflexive use of guitar idioms to Chopin's piano works, others feel more strongly that the Études of Heitor Villa-Lobos are to the guitar what the Chopin Études are to the piano. Nonetheless, the dynamic range and dazzling flourishes that mark Chopin's work have often seemed better suited to the keyboard than to the plucked string. Philip Hii's most recent release artfully defies such claims. It owes its success not only to Hii's brilliant technique, but to his inventive and studied arranging skills. The affect of the Nocturnes selected for this disc are fully maintained in Hii's guitar versions, and he navigates the delicate lines with an ease achieved only through deep thought and reflection. Op.48, No.1 is the first piece to fully explore Hii's range of talents, challenging the guitarist with quick chromatic lines interwoven into a complex polyphony. Equally memorable is Hii's performance of Op.55, No.1, in which he captures the essence of the many beautiful moments in this composition. The penultimate nocturne, Op.72, No.1, once again offers Hii the opportunity to display his acrobatics as he dances through some surprisingly fast scalar passages while carefully maintaining the active polyphonic lines. Aside from offering a wealth of new repertoire to challenge concert guitarists, this recording also sheds new light on compositions that greatly shaped the romantic period and thus I believe it would appeal to all who appreciate Chopin's work.
© Timothy Smith

Philip Hii's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Andante (streaming mp3)

Railroad Earth, "The Good Life", Sugarhill Records, SUG-CD-3983, 2004

I planned to cap this review with "I love this album", but I couldn't wait. But my love comes -- like everything else these days -- with a warning label. This is an uncategorizable record with imagistic lyrics that never tell stories and a singer whose voice my wife describes -- affectionately -- as plinky (though it grows on you faster than poison ivy). In tunes like "Bread and Water" and "Long Way to Go," Railroad Earth captures all the spontaneous exuberance of great pickers on the back porch. In contrast, "Mourning Flies," one of the CD's loveliest tunes, features a careful arrangement. Banjo, mandolin, and fiddle open the song, swirling and looping in a droning hush. The drums start up, calling the fiddle as it moves front and center, playing a very pretty melodic theme. Almost every song has this sort of motif. Each lead instrument plays one, usually doubled by another instrument. The group is presumably named after the essay by Jack Kerouac and this is a terrific album for listening to on the road, but the lyrics -- most written by lead vocalist , six string and National guitar player Todd Sheaffer -- are decidedly homebound. They take you back to the land with images of fires to tend, leaky roofs ("Storms") and handmade houses with bread baking in the oven ("The Good Life"). "The Good Life" takes you back to the heady days when you discover you are alive, mortal, and on our own. Anything can happen. There are bad dreams and time is passing, but there is so much to pick you up, like this music. To pin it down, Railroad Earth is a cross between a hot bluegrass band ("Water Fountain Quicksand"), the Grateful Dead ("Goat"), spiritually seeking singer-songwriting ("In the Basement"), and John Lennon ("Say What You Mean"). "The Good Life" is one of this year's hardest CD's to pigeonhole and one of the easiest to like. I love this album.
© David Kleiner

Railroad Earth's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Bread and Water (RealAudio)

John Petrucci & Jordan Rudess, "An Evening with John Petrucci & Jordan Rudess", Favored Nations FN2270-2, 2004

How do you restrain the electric intensity of guitar dynamo John Petrucci, known as shredder extraordinaire of the prog-rock band Dream Theater? Well, not by gearing him down with an acoustic guitar and unplugging him, apparently. This collection of live instrumental duos with pianist Jordan Rudess features Rudess exclusively on acoustic keyboards, with Petrucci trading electric guitar for acoustic on about 50% of the numbers, although the music on "An Evening With..." boils over exactly 100% of the time. One is reminded on the opening cut "Furia Taurina" of Al DiMeola's famous duet with Chick Corea, "Short Tales of the Black Forest", in which skittering melodies are built with rapidfire 32nd notes crisply stated on acoustic guitar and piano in perfect unison. That's unusual turf for a guitar idol who has cultivated a niche by wowing the coming-of-age crowd with pure pyrotechnics and cranked-up decibels. But as with Steve Morse's playing, the flash is a beguiling façade for some very mature musical manifestos. Steve Vai wisely recognized the improvisational genius in this live recording and was a one-man advocate for the re-release of this 2001 production, on his own Favored Nations label. Thanks in large part to Rudess' rousing keyboard arrangements, even the electric pieces on "An Evening With..." have a truly epic, rather than ostentatious, feel. Well, OK, the closing cut "Bite of the Mosquito", Petrucci's blazing alternative to the "Flight of the Bumblebee", is tremendously ostentatious but you just can't help but let your mouth drop open in happy amazement. © Alan Fark

John Petrucci's Website | Jordan Rudess' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Furia Taurina (RealAudio)

Various Artists, "Clawhammer Guitar", Solid Air Records SACD 2043, 2003

Guitarist Steve Baughman compiled this anthology, which features him and three other soloists playing traditional and new pieces in a style adapted from clawhammer banjo technique. Baughman's liner notes credit Jody Stecher with the first known use of clawhammer technique on the guitar, which has slowly diffused among fingerstyle guitarists, leading most notably to this CD and Baughman's book, Frailing the Guitar (Mel Bay). Stecher contributes two medleys and a 5/4 pipe march here, concentrating on the guitar's midrange and employing a tone that is more old-timey and less resonant than that of the other performers. Baughman, Michael Stadler and Alec Stone Sweet each favor a brighter, more extroverted guitar sound. There is a predominant Appalachian feel to all of the music on Clawhammer Guitar, encompassing even a new Chinese-themed composition and a medley of traditional Finnish tunes. While Jody Stecher is the father of clawhammer guitar, Alec Stone Sweet has developed this technique more fully that the others and Sweet's pieces offer perhaps the best listening on the album. Sweet uses shifts in timing and attack to enhance his presentation of "Tumblin' Gap," "Shady Grove/Salt River," "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," and "Ducks On a Pond/Cold Frosty Morning." Clawhammer technique allows the fingerstyle guitarist to play melodies at fast tempos and therefore merits investigation by players who wish to play Celtic and Appalachian fiddle and old-timey banjo tunes, or launch into as yet uncharted waters.
© Patrick Ragains

Steve Baughman's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource

Paul Geremia, "Love, Murder and Mosquitos", Red House Records 172, 2004

Only a handful of artists remain dedicated in preserving acoustic country blues in its natural format. One such artist is Paul Geremia, who’s been performing almost four decades across the country and in Europe. A genuine historian of this treasured format, Geremia is also known for being a master blues guitarist and an exceptional singer/songwriter. Love, Murder and Mosquitos(Red House), is a showcase of Geremia’s incredible fingerpicking dexterity on both twelve and six string acoustic guitar, his rack harmonica talent and expressive vocals. "Love, Murder and Mosquitos" has 18 tracks covering all three subjects. At first glance it may seem tiresome, but it’s actually quite lively with Geremia adding a little fun to the mix. "New Bully In Town" talks about all types of bullies in life, even making a few political jabs. "Mosquito Moan" finds Geremia expressing his displeasure with these little pests. You can hear him trying to slap one, "Ouch!" On a serious note, "Evil World Blues" touches upon the homeless issue, his deep vocal lament with bluesy fiddle, adds to the message. Geremia’s fingerpicking will amaze you on his version of Blind Blakes, "Tootie Blues", gliding across the fretboard like an ice skater. He pays tribute to his close friend Dave Van Ronk, on "Bad Dream Blues", a Van Ronk tune recorded back in the 1960s. "Love, Murder and Mosquitos" was long in arriving, but well worth the wait. This brilliant recording of prewar blues and original tunes, is backed by fiddle, mandolin, string bass and banjo. The pure energy of this album is all Geremia giving us his very best.
© Pamela Dow

Paul Geremia's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Meet Me in the Bottom (RealAudio)

Pete Teo, "Rustic Living for Urbanites", Red Bag Music, 2003

Pete Teo, Malaysian native, might very well be a pop music genius. His live shows in the Far East reportedly have earned him a cult following and good press. "Rustic Living for Urbanites" shows why: the guy can craft songs that sound immediately familiar yet eerily personal. Throw in a non-threatening, but tighter-than-a-tanktop band and the formula is cooking. Teo opens "Rustic Living for Urbanites" by tapping into the perfect pop idiom with his upbeat "Arms of Marianne", featuring a lilting, have-to-singalong-with chorus. The name Marianne shows up in three titles, to give an indication of Teo’s heart-on-his-sleeve approach here. His lighter songs make his darker songs all the more interesting, with knockout lines scattered liberally. This singer/songwriter/poet doesn’t hesitate to show a quietly tortured side, as he does most hauntingly on "Alive and Free", and throughout the 10-track collection. While his themes revolve around love, living and letting go, his vignette-like, earnest approach generally rings true. His world view helps to create an other-worldly aura, as he comes at us from an angle that we’re not accustomed to. There’s a vague sense of mystery shrouding Teo, building a pleasant curiosity. This is some intriguing work; it feels like Zen pop, hinting at life’s answers but offering only questions.
© Fred Kraus

Pete Teo's Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to Arms of Marianne (streaming mp3)

Jerry Kosak, "Sounds Like This", 2004

Classically trained guitarist Jerry Kosak plays against type on his 12-track instrumental release, "Sounds Like This". His original compostitions exist in a musical realm far from the all-too-prevalent studied, academic exercises that often come off technically perfect, but lacking in interpretation. Happily, Kosak, who holds an advanced degree in classical guitar and musicology, stays grounded with his love of traditional music roots. A line from Kosak’s web site sums his work up so nicely it bears repeating: it "suggests Segovia playing the music of Robert Johnson, while thinking about Leo Kottke". His technique is sound, his joy for composition and exploring musical styles is infectious, and his arrangements are pleasant. The one missstep on this collection (and he has at least one other CD available) is the only non-original tune of the bunch, "The 12th Street Rag". Though nicely performed, his choice of performing on such an upper register is jarring. Dan Newton’s fine accordion accompaniment ends up going for nought. Otherwise, this is fun and enjoyable stuff. In addition, Kosak’s a real guitar-horse, performing on a 2000 Martin 0M-42, a 1928 National Tricone Spanish neck, and a 2003 National Vintage Tricone. He owns a number of National metal-body guitars. "Sounds Like This" presents a nice collection of tunes, styles and moods you won’t soon tire of.
© Fred Kraus

Jerry Kosak's Website Buy it here

Sam Bush, "King of My World", Sugar Hill Records, SUG-CD-3987, 2004

You're king of your world. Widely recognized as perhaps the best mandolin player around. The proof rests in no less than 277 albums: solo, with the deservedly legendary New Grass Revival, and accompanying artists from Doc Watson to Garth Brooks. You've even been dubbed King Sammy after more than two-dozen appearances at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. So? Is it good to be king? This new solo project is Sam Bush's answer. It starts with the kind of hot picking ("Puppies and Knapsacks") fans expect from Bush. There are the well-chosen covers like Grandpa Jones' "Eight More Miles to Louisville" and a couple Jeff Black tunes, "They're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone" and the title track, with its theme of getting away from it all, an intro played on fretless electric bass by Byron House, a cool thematic motif on electric guitar by Jon Randall, and Bush's dramatic long held closing note on lead vocal. In fact, Bush handles all of the lead vocals admirably as well as playing fiddle, banjo, slide mandolin and guitar. Now and again, Bush leads the faithful to places they might not otherwise go. "Bananas," is a Latin tinged Bush penned new grass style jazzy instrumental (yeah, that's how eclectic all of this is). "The Mahavishnu Mountain Boys" is a raga inflected take on bluegrass with a guitar solo by Jon Randall that's nothing short of nirvana. There is the spiritual questing of Keb Mo's "A Better Man" and Johnny Clegg's "Spirit is the Journey." The closer is the hot swing of Bush's paean to his baseball hero, Ozzie Smith. This diverse territory has been visited and re-visited by Bush in his career, but in his majestic hands the vistas are always new. Long live the king. © David Kleiner

Sam Bush's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Bananas (RealAudio)

Jaquie Gipson, "Images", Tapastring Music 0104, 2004

Michael Hedges opened a whole new world of acoustic guitar music by his revolutionary two-handed tapping. Players like Preston Reed have added strong percussive elements, and young guns like Justin King are exploring new boundaries of speed and power. But sometimes in all the banging and gonging, I really just want to hear a coherent melody developed through the movement of the song. In her second solo release "Images," Colorado-based Jaquie Gipson shows why she is gaining a strong regional and even national following. There's plenty of popping, tapping, banging and scraping happening to satisfy the non-traditionalists who want the guitar to be a box of all trades. But Gipson also marks time in distinctly melodic ways, using fingerstyle where it works well. One of the strengths of this music is that her compositions know when to stop -- there is not an endless dragging out of sound. "Hummingbird" picks us up in its flight of fancy, darting and dashing with effective tapping but presenting this diminutive sprite is all its resplendent glory. "Gettysburg" beautifully haunts us with images of that national tragedy. "Spirit Warrior" evokes the spirituality of the peoples of the First Nations in a blend of percussion, flute, and guitar to bring us to the war council (several cuts have a Native American feel). My favorite piece is "Autumn's Song," one of the best fingerstyle songs I have ever heard. It's one of those you just can't get out of your mind, like a sweet walk through the gently falling leaves on a sunny, cool afternoon. An added bonus of this self-produced CD: a full 56 minutes of music, not slim pickins like some independent releases. These are thoughtful images given to the listener: you'd do well to give it a listen yourself.
© Kirk Albrecht

Jaquie Gipson's Website Buy it here
Listen to Buffalo Song (mp3)

Eric Elias, "Footprints", Phunquie Pholk Music 0103, 2004

Time was when you played one style, that's what you were -- a jazz guitarist, or a classical player, or a rocker. Not anymore. The new generation of guitarists is crossing over in genre and style, and showing the strength that comes from melding various influences into acoustic music. One such player is Eric Elias, whose latest CD "Footprints" showcases his abilities in pop, acoustic, jazz, and even classically-tinged compositions. This is not the first time around the block for Elias, who has recorded several other acoustic and jazz CD's. The 11 cuts on this recording reveal some fine chops and sensitive textures, though no pyrotechnics. Elias starts us out funky with some effective two-handed tapping on the opening cut "Flying Fish." "Fresh From Heaven" has a smooth acoustic jazz groove, and his duo with Robert Messore on "Fat Cat Bossa" whirls and slides through great chordal changes and single note runs. "Morning Light" syncopates between a pair of nylon-string guitars; the interplay is effective. The traditional classical piece "Afro-Cuban Lullaby" is well-phrased and preserves the feel of the piece, but perhaps without the power of a true classical player like Christopher Parkening. The CD closes with a lovely arrangement of "The Lord's Prayer" on steel string guitar, drawing the listener into that quiet place of the soul. One caveat on this recording: sound quality could have been better and would have done more service to the music. Overall, "Footprints" is a good listen.
© Kirk Albrecht

Eric Elias' Website Buy it at Phunquie Pholk Music

Ben Woolman, "Wisdom/Delusion", HAM-091303, 2003

Ben Woolman is an accomplished fingerstyle guitarist who composed eight of the ten pieces on this all-instrumental CD. He performs well in different tempos and settings, i.e., solo and when accompanied by bass guitar, percussion and, on one tune, mandolin. "Sunday Shine", the opening track, is an up-tempo piece conveying a sense of uplift and forward motion and including some nicely doubled guitar/bass lines. "Heat," a solo in a minor key, pleasingly changes the mood, featuring unresolved seconds and a major-keyed middle section, recalling some of John Renbourn's originals. Another solo, "Sorrow Floats," is evocative of resignation and acceptance and is one of the CD's best tracks. Woolman does a more than credible job on the oft-covered Lennon/McCartney tune, "Here, There and Everywhere," strengthening his statement of the melody with some octaves and replicating the original recording's chromatic run in the middle section. "Perfect Pace" is built on arpeggios, which Woolman varies smartly by playing in the bass, middle and high registers, then by altering his timing and right-hand attack before returning to the original statement. Woolman's originals recall works by James Taylor and Laurence Juber in their emotional content and lyricism. Some pieces on this CD are too similar in tempo and approach, and Woolman might have avoided a sense of sameness by employing different guitar tones or, since he works very well with other instrumentalists, by judiciously using more players. But as it stands, "Wisdom/Delusion" is a strong work from a growing artist.
© Patrick Ragains

Ben Woolman's Website Buy it here
Listen to Sunday Shine (streaming mp3)

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