Minor 7th Sept/Oct 2006: Tommy Emmanuel, Ed Gerhard, Mindy Smith, Aaron Brock, William Lee Ellis, Phil Keaggy, Harp Guitars, Alex Machacek, Zozo Sisters, Jeffrey Foucault, Vance Gilbert, Brett Dennen,
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

September/October, 2006

Tommy Emmanuel, "The Mystery," Favored Nations FNA 5130-2, 2006

Australian guitar wizard Tommy Emmanuel thrives in the rarefied air occupied by only a select few fingerstyle masters. Speed, melody, tone, songwriting skill,versatility -- Emmanuel effortlessly displays it all on his 17th collection, "The Mystery." A child prodigy, he began playing guitar at age 4, learning to play by ear without any formal instruction. By the age of six, he was already working as a professional musician. Along the way, Emmanuel learned percussion (on a drumkit, as well as on his guitar itself). Although 11 of the 12 tracks on "The Mystery" are instrumental, Emmanuel shows off his smooth vocal skills on "Walls," a duet with his partner, Elizabeth Watkins. Throughout his four-decade-plus career, the world-touring virtuoso has accumulated many awards, including Best Guitarist (Rolling Stone, 1990); Best Guitarist (Juke Magazine, 1984-1990); three platinum album awards; Best Country Album (Nashville MusicAwards, 1998); Grammy Nomination (1998); Album of theYear, Thumb Picker of the Year; and induction into the Thumb Pickers Hall of Fame, Kentucky (2005). If there is a common thread on the 10 tracks penned byEmmanuel, itís found in a peace and a gentleness that emanates throughout the compositions. The song titles offer some insight: "Cowboyís Dream," "The Mystery," "Thatís the Spirit," "Footprints," "Keep it Simple." Emmanuel proves skillful without being flashy; calm without being soporific; thoughtful without being pedantic. He remains faithful to the melody, using his exceptional guitar work to support the essence of the song. Very nice stuff.
© Fred Kraus

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

Ed Gerhard, "Sunnyland," Solid Air SACD 2057, 2006

Last year I heard Ed Gerhard perform "Still Not Sorry You're Gone", a new composition he had just recorded for this CD. It was a quirky piece, but fit perfectly with his concert staples, including "Tennessee", "Duet", "The Water is Wide," and John Lennon's "Imagine". Sunnyland presents 14 blues-flavored performances, doing so with greater variety than one finds on most self-styled blues recordings these days. Gerhard plays a variety of new and vintage acoustic and electric guitars, sometimes multitracking them. He dedicates each of seven performances to another musician, kicking things off with "Avalon Train", played in the gentle spirit of Mississippi John Hurt. On "Avalon Train", "5 to 99", "Still Not Sorry You're Gone", "Not Blind in Heaven", and other standout tracks, Gerhard successfully melds traditional approaches with his own approach, which includes pop influences, dissonance, and emotive chord progressions. A few other selections could have come from the bouncy Kicking Mule school of the 1970s, including "Sunnyland", (which Gerhard might have easily dedicated to Taj Mahal), "Little Road" and "Sunday Street Stroll", the latter of which effectively combines Dave Van Ronk's fusion of early jazz and Piedmont guitar. Another rootsy tune, "Either Way She Walks," shows how good a slide guitar duet can sound. Gerhard displays his slide mastery on several other tracks, including "Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes", "Night Owl Blues" and "Amazing Grace." Sunnyland is a fully realized thematic work, it's recorded as well as Gerhard's best earlier recordings and is fully satisfying. Buy it -- and thank him that you can.
© Patrick Ragains

Ed Gerhard's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to "Avalon Train" (mp3)

Mindy Smith, "Long Island Shores," Vanguard Records, 2006

Mindy Smithís voice is extraordinary. No matter how often I listen to "Long Island Shores," I feel a little shiver now and then. Smithís crystalline soprano somehow manages to have -- at once -- breathiness and resonance, vulnerability and strength. The only voice I know like hers belongs to Patty Griffin, a comparison Iím sure Smith has heard too many times. In "Long Island Shores," her sophomore release, Smith shines in settings tailored to her lovely instrument. Thereís a whole lotta love here, and a lotta uncertainty and heartbreak, too. "Edge of Love," a song with hooks to spare, really stirs the soul. It opens quietly with cymbal taps, arpeggios on the six-string, and a serene drone underneath. From there, the tune builds. When the chorus finally arrives ("the weatherís fine oh, oh, oh") about a third of the way through, Smith really comes to life. So does the band, with overlays of guitar tracks and more drive in the drums. "What If the World Stops Turning" is a straight-ahead love song in an updated Porter and Dolly duet setting. "You Just Forgot" is one nasty but beautiful gotcha song with some pointed images. "You Know I Love You," driven by some tasty mandolin, is a standout with its humor, lighthearted vamp ("you do or you donít"), wah-wah solo, and old-time swing chorus. The title track stakes out different ground than any of the other tunes. It serves to explain the entire CD (and Smithís career): girl from Long Island finds fulfillment in Nashville. Smith imagines what the family reunion will be like as she readies to board the plane, unsure whether it will be harder to go back home again or return to Tennessee. She fills the song with personal details and places them over an Irish melody. The CD closes with Smith at her most vulnerable praying for "Peace of Mind." She should listen to her album more often. It works for me.
© David Kleiner

Mindy Smith's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Out Loud" (mp3)

Aaron Brock, "Toccata," Analekta Records AN29853, 2006

Despite all the success, joy, and love this world has to offer, the reality is that tragedy perpetually lurks nearby; always present, and yet always striking when we least expect it. Although I try to be aware of this threat, I am still having great difficulty coping with this most recent blow fate has dealt us. How can a brilliant young musician, in the midst of celebrating one of his greatest artistic achievements, be torn away from this world? How can a person, whose life was guided by the purity of his heart, be simultaneously destined to die from it failing on him? This recording is Aaron Brock's first release with Analekta, Canada's largest classical music label, and due to his untimely death resulting from an undiagnosed congenital heart disease, it will also be his last. My first impressions of this disc mirrored my first impressions of Aaron, when we met years ago. He can only be described as a gentleman; graceful, sensitive, and erudite. His musical interpretations reflect his character, guiding the listener through a deep complexity of emotions while never becoming abstruse or inaccessible. Many of the pieces Brock selected are marked by broad ranges of musical expression: "Koyunbaba", at first tacit and meditative, later explosive and outspoken; "Tres Piezas Espanolas", at times rigid and controlled, at other times wildly scaling across the fretboard; and "Un Seno en la Floresta", predominantly lyrical and romantic, while interrupted occasionally by mournful whispers of frustration. Most notable however, is Brock's own composition "Toccata, a Leo Brouwer", which is a carefully conceived, reflective tribute to the unique compositional style of Leo Brouwer, a prolific classical guitar composer. Aaron Brock was a young musician with limitless talent and potential. Although he is no longer with us, his immortal contribution to the classical guitar world will be heard and cherished for eternity.
© Timothy Smith

Aaron Brock's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Gigue" (mp3)
Listen to Aaron Brock at our podcast

William Lee Ellis, "God's Tattooo," Yellow Dog Records YDR1343, 2006

William Lee Ellis is an artisan of the unadorned back porch school, as befits an avowed student of the Reverend Gary Davis and the Appalachian sound and mindset he represents. In keeping with that tradition, the production leans towards the purist camp, allowing for no-reverb vocals and you-are-there string noise artifacts to peak through the mix. But Ellis himself is not a purist. He branches out frequently, offering a fairly varied program within the genre. Ellis is not a singerís singer, but thatís not really the point in his music. Heís documenting the thing, bringing forward the magic inherent in the material. As a writer heís very close to the bones of the homespun spirituals he recovers. Acoustic slide guitar is the core of his sound, played mostly on a Gibson J45. His format of choice is a concise acoustic ensemble that fits like an old shoe. He opens with a full band treatment of the co-written "Snakes in My Garden" that seems to spring fully-formed out of the Robert Johnson milieu in the form of a Texas shuffle driven by a propulsive snare riffle. "Search My Heart" is a real stand-out on the outing. Ellisí Eric Clapton 461 Ocean Boulevard era vocal is complemented by his sometime collaborator Reba Russell to great effect. Ellis offers a nod to the acoustic Jimmy Page in a brief interlude. All this is layed out over the bones of a Rev. Gary Davis take on a beautiful gospel tune. Clapton himself would love it. Ellis covers Mississippi John Hurtís "Here I Am Lord, Send Me" in a lovely, somber duet with his wife, Julie Coffey. This lovely back porch treatment of a lovely tune backs up Ellisí stature as being more than an archivist, while reminding us never to forget Mr. Hurt. Ellisí own "Dust Will Write My Name" is the solo stand-out on this disk. The evocatively titled song lives up to its name in this world-weary elegy. The distance between high and low, here and the hereafter never seemed too great in the back country mountain tradition, and though Ellis lives in Memphis, his heart is clearly in the hills.
© Steve Klingaman

William Lee Ellis' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Snakes in My Garden" (mp3)

Phil Keaggy, "Roundabout," TAG Artist Group 615-480-8811, 2006

Phil Keaggy is especially known to the fingerstyle world for his Dove Award-winning recordings "The Wind and the Wheat" and "Beyond Nature." But where those recordings were triumphs of composition, his newest recording "Roundabout" is more about chops and atmosphere. Although "Roundabout" is also an exclusively acoustic and instrumental recording, its uniqueness lies in using loops to multitrack his own guitar. Though this method allows Keaggy to pile brushstroke upon brushstroke for a very rich musical canvas, it does impose some limitations. Modulation from key-to-key and rhythmic variations are more problematic with looped compositions, but Keaggy manages to spice things up by cutting and pasting, by using unusual guitar voices, and of course, with searing riffs. Fans of Glass Harp will enjoy "Roundabout's" emphasis on the guitar solo, Keaggy's true fortť. Particularly on "J-loop," one of the few tracks which is relatively unadorned by synthesized sounds, Keaggy punctuates the close of the song by a trademark 64th note sprint up the neck. These moments of stark bedazzlement are sparse, though, and Keaggy's magic this time around is mostly subtle. "Loop a Loola" and "Merry Go Round" are beautifully mysterious and otherworldly, a musical surface he's never before scratched. "Roundabout" is very different than Phil Keaggy's previous 50 or so releases, demonstrating a true artist's willingness to experiment, explore and grow.
© Alan Fark

Phil Keaggy's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "J-Loop" (mp3)
Listen to Phil Keaggy at our podcast

Various Artists, "Beyond Six Strings", Harp Guitar Music HGM-CD-001, 2006

How many strings does a guitar have? Six, you say? Well, what about the 12-string made famous by Leo Kottke? Tenor guitars? The world of guitar has long ventured outside the bounds of what many people consider a "normal" instrument with a mere six strings. The past two decades has seen a resurgence of historic and musical interest in harp guitars, which first began to appear in this country at the turn of the 20th century when Knutsen, Dyer, and the Larsons made and marketed various forms of harp guitars -- those with extra strings usually attached to a second head, which gave the instrument a plethora of tones and colors. Gibson also got in on the action in those early days. "Beyond Six Strings" is a terrific collection of tunes by modern impresarios of guitars both old and new with lots of strings. Three of the players (and the producers) on this CD are well known for their long-time support for all things harp guitar: John Doan, Steven Bennett, and Gregg Miner, who provides the brief introduction to harp guitars in the liner notes. The packaging of the disc is top notch, with excellent notes on the songs and artists, as well as photos of some of the instruments. Each of the players on the disc has a personal love affair with these instruments. We hear all sort sorts of playing from two-handed tapping on "Emmet's Rising" by Andy Wahlberg and "The Friend I Never Had" by Andy McKee, to gentle fingerpicking on "Clarsah" by Muriel Anderson on a custom nylon string harp requinto crafted by luthier Mike Doolin. The oldest instrument is an 1899 Knutsen played by Miner on "Deserted Island," sounding like a standard OM with some extra bass strings (and looking like it, too). The tonal palette is stretched to its limits on "In John Fahey There Is No East or West" by John Doan on a 20 stringed Sullivan-Elliott harp guitar, while Bennett lets the droning deep bass strings ring on "November" to close a wonderful recording of guitar music, and a must-have for anyone interested in these fascinating instruments.
© Kirk Albrecht

HarpGuitars.net Buy it at Harp Guitar Music
Listen to "Don't Give Into Sorrow About Tomorrow" (mp3)
Listen to other harp guitarists at our podcast

Alex Machacek, "[sic]," Abstract Logix ABLX-002, 2006

John McLaughlin is not known to often heap praise on unknown guitarists, so when he does it, you can be sure that those recipients are destined to dominate the musical landscape of the future. Recently, McLaughlin was quoted as saying "Alex Machacek's music starts where other music ends. He is playing some amazing guitar on [sic]. He is going where other people stop. It is so nice to hear." So nice to hear, indeed, especially for fans of guitarists like Mike Keneally, Allan Holdsworth and Frank Zappa, fans who delight when the boundaries of technique, meter and composition are pushed beyond known limits. Though classically trained and a Berklee graduate, it's easy to hear from one listen to [sic] that Machacek's fiery imagination and command of staccato and oddly-metered Zappa-esque phrasing could never be constrained by the regimented forms of either classical music or mainstream jazz. And that is very lucky for us... because we at last get to experience a rare trajectory in the unfolding timeline of music -- innovation. The title track is a little outlandish, with interjected "wows" and "amazings" uttered between guitar lines by a presumed sound engineer. Regardless of whether meant to be satirical or a throwback to The Mothers' brand of comedy, the track stands in stark contrast to the very serious music which follows. "Yellow Pages" features a double-tracked melody of vibes and guitar reminiscent of Ruth Underwood with Frank Zappa, evolving into a Holdsworthian epic. Machacek embellishes a previously released tune from Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio's 1994 release "Solo Drum Music" -- on "Djon Don" he magnificently reinvents the tune by composing multilayered guitar and piano tracks around Bozzio's difficult drum track. Only by track 7 does the music begin to sound somewhat mainstream on "Out of Pappenheim." It opens like Mike Stern on steroids until the solo, when Machacek's maniacal side can't help but again take over. He shows that he can simmer down to quietude, however, on "The Ballad of the Dead Dog," a trio ballad that might be named as a Pat Metheny tune in a Downbeat blindfold test. Though Machacek's use of electric guitar far outstrips his use of acoustic on [sic], the playing is so original and virtuosic that even hardcore acoustic jazz fans should have this one in their library.
© Alan Fark

Alex Machacek's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Djon Don (mp3)

The Zozo Sisters, "Adieu False Heart," Vanguard Records, 2006

There are three sure things in this world - death, taxes, and the beauty of Linda Ronstadt's voice. Whether she's singing pop, country rock, mariachi or Cajun, it's going to be clear, sweet and packed with emotion. Add Ann Savoy's talented Cajun style vocals, excellent sideplayers, and Steve Buckingham as producer (Dolly Parton, Mindy Smith) and darlin', you can't go wrong. Beautifully sparse arrangements with an acoustic guitar at the center surround each song, putting the focus on their two lovely vocals. While the Cajun numbers are wonderful, the standout number is the old Left Banke classic "Walk Away Renee." Ronstadt and Savoy take turns with the vocals, starting with a simple but elegant finger picked steel string acoustic. A weeping violin plays under the next verse then segues into a gorgeous string ensemble that fills the instrumental section. Another one that'll make you sigh is Julie Miller's "I Can't Get Over You." Many singers would turn this one into a syrupy song of regret but there's that trademark ache in Ronstadt's voice Ö buy her a drink and offer her your shoulder. There are two Richard Thompson numbers here - Ronstadt singing lead on "King of Bohemia" and Savoy on "Burns' Supper." With a Cajun flair they sing Bill Monroe's "The One I Love is Gone," tight harmonies and soaring twin fiddles at its heart. A banjo introduces "Rattle My Cage," making me wonder when Ronstadt's going to make her own bluegrass album. She sings it so convincingly. Forget about death and taxes for awhile. Get this CD.
© Jamie Anderson

Zozo Sisters' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Walk Away Renee" (mp3)

Jeffrey Foucault, "Ghost Repeater," Signature Sound Records SIG1298, 2005

Ghosts haunt the landscape of Jeffrey Foucaultís latest release. They rise out of the blues ("Wild, Waste, and Welter"), the Appalachian murder tales ("Train to Jackson") and the back porch picking underlying Foucaultís songs. They materialize in the atmospheric electric guitar of producer Bo Ramsey ("One Part Love" and many others), and dreams that bring back old lovers ("the dark beauty of your eyes burn like a fire in the cold"). Their visitations come like radio signals from ghost repeaters, empty stations re-broadcasting robotic playlists designed by the soulless ghouls some call marketers. There are spirits here and the premonition of death. But there is plenty of life in this world for a man who has "been one for sorrow for too long." Heíll search past the barren frequencies of "the late night FM no manís land" until he finds a Tom Petty song on his car radio. Heíll marry and honeymoon ("Americans in Corduroys"), hit the road, celebrate the sweet wedding of a friend ("Tall Grass in Old Virgininny"), and kiss his new wife in the middle of the street because, though "nothing is forever, nothing is in vein." Heíll make music that swings joyfully ("City Flower") with lyrics so precise and so graceful, I could quote any line in any song for proof. Heíll wrap his lusciously deep voice around every achingly beautiful melody ("One Part Love," for one), play good six string, and even write songs that ought to be hits on country radio ("Mesa, Arizona"). And heíll make the best damn album Iíve heard this year, "Ghost Repeater." © David Kleiner

Jeffrey Foucault's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Ghost Repeater" (mp3)

Vance Gilbert, "Angels, Castles, Covers," Disismye Music 005, 2006

Does anyone need another cover album? The question arose when I learned Vance Gilbert was venturing into the genre. After all, his last release, "Unfamiliar Moon," showcased his enormous and diverse songwriting talents. But Gilbertís gifts go well beyond writing. This set of great, mostly familiar songs is an invitation to truly appreciate Gilbertís smooth, soulful vocals, nimble guitar work, and interpretive skills. The brief liner notes explain the CDís setlist of formative moments in Gilbertís musical consciousness. The original recordings, from the early sixties ("Save the Last Dance for Me") to the late eighties ("Cry Like An Angel"), influenced Gilbert on the journey to becoming a professional musician. With typical Gilbert mischievous irony, "Aint Nothing Like The Real Thing" opens this covers CD, with vocals quite a bit like Marvin Gayeís real thing ("Fireflies" composer Lori McKenna takes the Tammi Terrell role). But Sean Staplesí rhythmic, inventive mandolin solo prepares the listener to expect the unexpected. "Iím So Tired Of Being Alone" slows down Al Greenís frenetic version and adds a gospel chorus of Vances. The tune swings, thanks in large part to Richard Gatesí bass. Staples contributes another terrific solo and Gilbertís soaring falsetto tops things off. "Until You Come Back to Me" is Vance Gilbert so unleashed that the closing vamp (with guitar and scat) cracks him up. If you consider "Save the Last Dance For Me" a romantic song, Gilbert will show you the pain-near-to-rage of someone who says, "You can smile every smile for the guy who'd like to treat you right... but don't forget who's takiní you home." "Heaven Help Us All," ends the set. Sad to say, Ron Millerís prayer is as relevant today as when Stevie Wonder recorded it in 1970 ("Heaven help the ones who kick the ones who got to crawl"). Okay... you donít need another covers album. But, try "angels castles covers" sometime and you just might find... you get what you want.
© David Kleiner

Vance Gilbert's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing (mp3)

Brett Dennen, "So Much More", Dualtone Music 80302-01240-2, 2006

He's doing a fall tour with John Mayer and it's easy to see why. There's no confusing his quirky tenor and groovy guitar licks with Mayer but there's a soulfulness to his songs that's definitely compatible. The girls will love his slightly geeky persona too. His words tumble out over folk-pop arrangements where repeated guitar riffs and sparse drums provide a fun landscape. It's not always exactly what he's saying but how the rhythm fits into the song. "The One Who Loves You the Most" is a solid love song. In "Because You're a Woman," he's less sure of himself. Keb Mo plays a smooth slide guitar in the middle. There's an island beat in "Darlin' Do Not Fear." "Someday" rocks out a bit more than the others, with a reggae style guitar and up front drums. With lyrics so much a focus in his work it would've been nice to have them in the liner notes. The original bright pastel and watercolor artwork that takes their place is pretty, though. © Jamie Anderson

Brett Dennen's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Ain't No Reason" (mp3)

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