Minor 7th July/Aug 2009: Ronn McFarlane, Trevor Hall, Andreas Kapsalis & Goran Ivanovic, Pat Donohue, Peter Mulvey, Bill Cooley, New West, Telly
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

July/August, 2009

Ronn McFarlane, "Indigo Road," Dorian Recordings, 2009

Wow. This is not Julian Bream playing the great lute works of the past. Ronn McFarlane is creating his own landscape for modern lute music, while keeping at least a few fingers touching what has come before. On his 8th CD, "Indigo Road" McFarlane crafts music that speaks of life and hope and longing and joy and the depth of soul that few languages outside of music can know. We see in the second cut, the title track "Indigo Road," that McFarlane is comfortable tearing up the many strings his amazing Ray Nurse lute holds, creating at once multiple voices running at breakneck speed. The very next cut, "Denali" echoes the foreboding beauty of North American’s highest point (otherwise known as Mt. McKinley). McFarlane is not too rarified to borrow from other greats, as he demonstrates on "Blue Norther", where the influence of the late Michael Hedges is more than obvious in some tapping. "Uncharted Waters" is an adrenaline rush that builds to a striking conclusion. While thoroughly modern in tone and arrangement, McFarlane does harken back to John Dowland, one of the instrument’s true wonders, in "Dowland’s Goodnight", using forms common to Dowland compositions to sadly bid adieu. Another piece, "Gigue", draws from the Baroque dances written by Silvius Leopold Weiss in the early 18th century, and McFarlane shows he can play those with ease and charm. One of the more intriguing pieces on the disk is "Thistleheart" which was inspired by thoughts of the great Scottish-American steel baron Andrew Carnegie, a man at once hard and yet generous; the tune reflects both a gentleness and hard edge that leave it as one of the most melancholy of the CD. For lute music lovers, Ronn McFarlane continues to keep the lute in the ears of the 21st century.
© Kirk Albrecht

Ronn McFarlane's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Pinetops" (mp3)
Listen to Ronn McFalane at our podcast

Trevor Hall, Vanguard Records, 2009

A vocalist of astonishing power and nuance, Trevor Hall quietly impresses in his first, and self-titled, disc for Vanguard. Benefiting from the layered production of Marshall Altman, Hall’s songs of spirituality, love, peace, equality and self-realization convey thoughtful life commentary in accessible packages. One song -- "Unity," the most political of the album -- was co-written with a colleague in reaction to the Mumbai terrorist attacks. This song’s chorus reflects a maturity that belies Hall’s relative youth: "I just wanna melt away in all Its grace, drift away to that sacred place where there’s no more you and me, no more they and we, just unity." Bringing to mind an amalgam of Jack Johnson, Bob Marley and Dave Matthews, Hall’s voice is showcased throughout this 12-track collection, most notably on "Who You Gonna Turn To," "Where’s the Love" and the charming "Lime Tree." In short, Hall nicely blends sincerity with marketability. He possesses the rare quality of being able to connect with a wide array of listeners; indeed, whoever happened to overhear this disc wanted to know the artist’s name, and then said how much they liked whatever song was playing. Part of Hall’s appeal is that his reggae-based songs sound fresh and original, but also vaguely familiar. They seem linked into some primeval wiring we all share. A guitarist and lyricist, Hall grew up in South Carolina and started his musical career and education early on. The variety in this collection indicates a veteran sensibility to pace and tone, while the disc’s closer, "Many Roads," uses a boiled-down approach to maximum effect. I really believe Hall has the potential to be a major voice in the music world.
© Fred Kraus

Trevor Hall at MySpace Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Unity" (mp3)

Andreas Kapsalis & Goran Ivanovic, "Guitar Duo," 2009

This self-produced CD by two of Chicago’s best young guitarists features lively, Eastern-European rhythms and inventive melodies. Both have an impressive background, Ivanovic having recorded with his own group, Eastern Blok and guitarist Fareed Haque, and Kapsalis working with his eponymous trio and the Megitza Quartet. Ivanovic on classical and Kapsalis on steel string guitars achieve an appealing balance, with the distinctive sound of each instrument in evidence. "Shadow Thief" opens the disc with Ivanovic taking the lead and Kapsalis providing a compelling, percussive accompaniment. "Samba in 10" follows, characterized by more complex interplay. "Vertigo" and "Turritopsis Nutricula" convey a sense of drama, the latter piece being an excellent vehicle for subtle rhythmic variations. The guitarists pay homage to a major influence with "Improv for Satie," although the composer’s compositional forms show up in other selections. Ivanovic begins "Migration of the Solstice," as a classical solo, with Kapsalis soon joining him for another propulsive workout. The two players composed all selections, with the exception of "Kalajdzisko Oro", which is based on a Macedonian folk song. The duo plays each piece flawlessly, which is no small feat when working with such challenging material. Recommended for guitarists and general listeners alike.
© Patrick Ragains

AKGI Duo's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Shadow Thief" (mp3)
Listen to Andreas Kapsalis & Goran Ivanovic at our podcast

Pat Donohue, "Freewayman," 2008

For devotees of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, the guitar work of Pat Donohue is no surprise. If you like Delta or Piedmont style blues guitar, you have come to the right place. Set down, put up your feet, and let those toes start tapping, because there are few rivals to Donohue when it comes to modern interpretations of the great masters like Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Blake, among others. Donohue gets that groove on, and its Saturday night at the speak easy. The title cut highlights Donohue’s ability to let it rip on arpeggios while driving the beat with his thumb. Sometimes, you just wonder how so much music can come from just two hands. "Big Bill Special" is a tribute to one of Donohue’s inspirations, Broonzy, and you can almost hear the big man himself. There are some real chestnuts on this disc, including "Saguaro Slide", where the guitar wails and moans under Donohue’s deft fingerings; "2nd St. Blues" that drives you down low; and "Northeast Rag", rollicking and rolling as Donohue wanders over the fingerboard. Most of the cuts on "Freewayman" are originals except for a few covers: "Cyrpress Grove Blues" by Skip James (played with sassy slide and dripping with southern sexiness), an impressive solo guitar version of the big-band classic "Stompin’ at the Savoy", and Tampa Red’s "Boogie Woogie Dance" to close out the CD; makes you want to get out of your chair and just move. It don’t get much better than this, folks. Blues heaven.
© Kirk Albrecht

Pat Donohue's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Freewayman" (mp3)

Peter Mulvey, "Letters From a Flying Machine," Signature Sounds, 2009

The first time we hear Peter Mulvey's roughhewn baritone on his twelfth release, he sings, "If you got a pretty good idea what you're looking for, then you got a pretty good idea of what you'll find." Here, this enormously talented and ambitious singer/songwriter bravely looks for understanding in the tension between opposites: creation and decay; love and the indifference of the universe; time and space on the human scale versus the universal. Mulvey responds with a carefully arranged, generally upbeat -- even downright bouncy -- set of tunes often intended to put a smile on your face. The ratio of songs I wish I'd written myself is unusually high. "Kids in the Square" poses dance-merrily-for-tomorrow-we die as an alternative. But the narrator merely observes, thinking about Yeats' "The Second Coming." "Some People," -- my favorite cut, reminiscent of Annie Ross' "Crazy" -- humorously lists paths folks take ("Some people go to the tavern; Some people go to the church; Some senators go into airport johns and they get their reputations besmirched..."), to a swing progression. "What's Keeping Erica" uses a circus-like arrangement, including a saw, in a song about fragility. "Dynamite Bill," tells the tale of a dangerous woman and an explosives expert with a bass string tuned so low it rattles like the ground beneath your feet when Bill makes "somethin' go boom." The more personal "Shoulderbirds" stands as the album's prettiest number with a string section and subtle harmony vocals. The set concludes with the refreshingly upbeat "A Wing and A Prayer." It works particularly well since "letters" to Mulvey's nieces and nephews written during flights take up 15 of the album's 44 minutes. As a songwriter I have to ask -- since these letters are facsimiles created for the record -- "Why not songs?" Listeners will judge Mulvey's conceit when they listen or download. Will they include the letters? Mulvey adds a coda to the record, the Gershwins' timeless "Our Love is Here to Stay." Mulvey must have had a pretty good idea what he'd find setting out on a search with song. In the end, don't songwriters always return to love? Then again, doesn't everyone?
© David Kleiner

Peter Mulvey's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Kids in the Square" (mp3)

Bill Cooley, "The Return Journey," NLM Records, 2009

One listen to Bill Cooley’s new solo CD, "The Return Journey," and you stop wondering why Kathy Mattea has used him as her principal sideman for the past 19 years. Cooley is a guitarist’s guitar player, like Vince Gill, who seems to be at home in most any style. This is Cooley’s 3rd foray on his own terms. While this may be a solo CD, Cooley has some fine help adding texture to his songs with percussion, strings, winds, and Kathy Mattea providing vocals on a cover of Elton John’s "Madman Across the Water" (with as much or more power than the original thanks to Mattea’s smoky vocals working with the sparse arrangement of acoustic guitar and cello). Three of the songs are just Cooley and his acoustic guitar: "Buckboard Bounce", a happy, bouncy rhythm; "Hittin on All Six", a perambulating blues that shows off some of Cooley’s signature licks and chord changes; and "Morning Poem", a lovely, lonely piece reflecting Cooley’s love of a good melody. A touch o’ the Irish comes in the form of "Gang Forward", complete with Uilleann pipes backing Cooley’s single-note runs. One fine arrangement is "Night Traveler" with acoustic bass and squeezebox lending a sense of railcars rolling through the cloudless night outside New Orleans. The only wish I had for this record that wasn’t met was that it were longer; Bill Cooley’s music makes you want to listen.
© Kirk Albrecht

Bill Cooley's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Escalator" (mp3)
Listen to Bill Cooley at our podcast

New West, "Sleeping Lady," 2009

The art of innovation is the art of surprise, and surprises abound on New West's "Sleeping Lady." New West is an acoustic guitar trio comprised of guitarists Perry Smith, John Storie and Brady Cohan, all in their early twenties and all graduates of USC. Their young age is surprise #1 given the maturity of the music, but may be one clue why this music seems always new, written so creatively on a blank slate. The music itself, all original except one track, is the second and most important surprise, replete with unusual cadences and chord resolutions. The third surprise is chanteuse extraordinaire Gretchen Parlato, whose breathy vocals take the listener aback in a very good way on track 3, "Never Had a Chance." The effect is as if Flora Purim had stepped in midway through a California Guitar Trio set. The trio has obviously done their homework in the classics (Ponce's "Estrelita") and blues ("RC Think Tank," "Blues for Brubeck"). "Birthday Girl" and "California" ebb and flow as evocatively as the rhythms of nature itself. The title track is distinguished by the haunting calliope-like scatting of Parlato over a tintinnabulating chorus of lush open strings, sometimes meditative, sometimes angular and jarring. Past participants in the 2005 world Exposition in Nagoya and 2007 German-American Volkfest in Berlin, New West is poised to inherit a voice with the world's cultural changemakers should their ideas continue to be always new as their technique continues to season.
© Alan Fark

New West's Website Buy it at CD Universe
Listen to "Never Had a Chance"

Telly, "Free Music For Sale," 2009

Now there’s an album title for the times we live in! Telly (full name Telly Karoussos) is a Long Island based singer songwriter and road warrior who adheres to the timeless tradition of all great American songsmiths from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen to Jeff Buckley to Dave Matthews (to whom he’s often compared to) in that his lyrics expose universally shared stories (love, injustice, relationships) with pop hooks aplenty. "Free Music" is actually a re-issue from a few years back, but you’d never know it. Dubbed by the artist as "acousticapoprockfolkfunk" -- Telly tells his tales with a decidedly aggressive rhythm section which firmly separates him from the seemingly endless parade of new folk artists who tend to adhere to pure acoustic instrumentation and arrangements that have been run into the ground. Electric bassists Mike Lynch and Aram Chekijan, drummers Chris Hadjopolous, Mike Mazzacaro Jan Trojanowski, and Kynan Cooksey all turn in stellar performances -- embellishing Telly’s melodies and gritty vocal delivery with jazz, blues, and soul filled flourishes. Telly’s unique balance of electric and acoustic guitar work also shines throughout (anyone remember Mick Ronson?), especially in tracks such as "Absolutely Everything" as the artist plays in free time, then leads his troops into several dramatic start-stop passages, then shifts from concise electric guitar licks (think Robbie Robertson, Mark Knopfler) to beautiful noise (Tom Verlaine would be proud). "Free," underpinned by a killer lower-register motif rendered in double time in the verses, explodes in the chorus as Telly shifts gears with a foot stomping four-to-the-bar rhythm and an anthemic melody to die for. Cosmic folkies will dig "Where I Stand" replete with its spacey interludes, trippy falsetto vocals, and funky undertow. Once again , big hooks abound on "At The End Of The Day" -- a track that might have saved the new U2 album! "Free Music"... is one of the best albums of 2009 -- regardless of when it was recorded!
© Tom Semioli

Telly's Website Buy it at CD Universe or iTunes
Listen to "Free" (mp3)

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