Minor 7th Nov/Dec 2004: Ani DiFranco, LJ and others, Megan Slankard, Pierce Pettis, El McMeen, Kaki King, Guy Davis, Adam Rafferty, Kate Campbell, Five Wise, Mark Casstevens, Bola Sete
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

November/December, 2004

Ani DiFranco, "Sacramento 10.25.03", Righteous Babe Records RBR037D, 2004

How many singer-songwriters have a distinctive sound as instrumentalists, recognizable after only a few notes? Think Stevie Wonder on harmonica, Bruce Hornsby on piano, Leo Kottke on 12-string. And Ani DiFranco. The only introduction Ani needed one year ago today in Sacramento was a barrage of her signature percussive, rapid-fire folk/punk. Minor7th has a special affinity for unique guitar stylists and independent artists, and Ani DiFranco -- with her Righteous Babe label -- is the poster woman for both. Ani (it's impossible to call her DiFranco) shines live. Her self-effacing charm ("thank you for making room for the music tonight" followed by a reference to "The Sound of Music"). Her ability to feed off fan energy. Her masterful use of dynamics and unusual voicings. The relentless attack, bending strings out of pitch then making them sing sweetly. The spaciousness of songs totally personal yet deeply political and universal ("I don't take good pictures 'cuz I have the kind of beauty that... moves"). The excitement of a phenomenally prolific writer (sixteen studio albums since 1990), an adventuresome musician always breaking new ground. One third of the cuts here appeared later on 2004's "Educated Guess." But this disk also features songs from all over Ani's catalogue. "Sacramento" is the second in a proposed series of official bootlegs to be released every six weeks then sold online and at concerts. Recording directly onto sixteen track ProTools software produces authentic, listenable sound, with the crowd mixed (from its own microphone) as an important but never obtrusive part of the experience. One solo Ani in-concert disk should be required listening. I suspect, however, only diehard fans will feel a need to own more (there are already three). Luckily for Ani (and all of us ultimately) those fanatics are legion. They'll keep this American wonder touring and exploring new territory. We'll wonder at where she's been and where she'll go next.
© David Kleiner

Ani DiFranco's Website Buy it here

Various Artists (Play Henry Mancini), "Pink Guitar", Solid Air Records SACD 2048, 2004

Most of us grew up listening to the songs of composer Henry Mancini, on the radio, and in film scores (though if you were like me, I didn't pay much attention to the music credits). They were tunes which stuck with us -- the theme from "Peter Gunn," "Moon River," and the "Pink Panther" theme. These and 10 other songs have been put to solo acoustic guitar arrangements by some of the world's finest fingerstylists on a CD from Solid Air Records called "Pink Guitar," a musical tribute to mark 10 years since Mancini's death. When I first heard of this project, I was skeptical, but one listen changed my mind: each player brings out the character of Mancini's compositions with skill and beauty. For above all, Mancini wrote beautiful music. Solid Air's James Jensen commissioned Laurence Juber to handle the opening track -- the shifty theme from the Pink Panther movies made famous by the late Pete Sellers as the bumbling detective Jacques Clouseau. Juber catches the powerful groove and plays deftly to bring out the various parts of the score. It sounds just like it should on guitar. Every guitarist is great on the CD, but here are some favorites: Ed Gerhard's languid serenity on "Moon River", squeezing depth out of single notes; Pat Donohue rifling us with multiple voices through the staccato "Peter Gunn"; Al Petteway adding a Celtic lilt to The Thornbirds Theme; William Coulter getting cute in DADGAD with "Baby Elephant Walk" from the movie "Hatari"; and Mark Hanson and Doug Smith combining for a catchy duo on "A Shot in the Dark" to close out the CD. Any lover of fingerstyle guitar should buy this CD, and so should any lovers of Henry Mancini's musical genius. It's a magical wedding of musical beauty.
© Kirk Albrecht

Acoustic Music Resource's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource

Megan Slankard, "Freaky Little Story", Megan Slankard Music 2386, 2003

Megan Slankard proves that you don't have to play the same three chords over and over again to be a rock 'n' roll star. And how about a backing band that challenges the leader rather than simply provides faceless accompaniment? Welcome to "Freaky Little Story", which is neither freaky nor little. The comparisons to Alanis Morrisette, Patty Griffin, and Ani DiFranco are scattered all over her press kit, and are certainly warranted. However, if you only heard the cut "Mocking Bird," it would become quite evident that Slankard has a lot of contemporary soul in her bones too, slipping slinky vocal phrases across the bar-line, complemented by DJ scratching. Through-out this deeply introspective song-cycle, Slankard's snappy, organic acoustic guitar rhythms and syncopated melodies serve as the perfect balance to her angelic harmonies which often break into dreamy falsetto multi-tracked passages. Down in the engine room bassist Dave Moffat and drummer Ian Stambaugh offer a clinic on how a rhythm section should push and pull an acoustic artist. Moffat's clear, fat tones on his 5-string electric (check out his tasty solo on the intro of "Lose Me") and Sambaugh's smart patterns ebb and flow on each cut. The high points on this collection are many. "Captain Madness" features intriguing vocal counterpoint punctuated with a few strategically placed snarls as guitarist Mike Hsieh tosses jazzy fluid licks over the verse and chorus. Cellos and shakers embellish "Addy's Tattoo," which is among the most lyrically intriguing cuts on the disc. The funk fluctuates on "The Freak Out Song" as Moffat slaps while Slankard tosses out fast arpeggios, stop-start rhythms, and scat vocals atop Sambaugh's poly-rhythmic undertow. Slankard can also be a traditional folkie when she wants to be, as in "Flying Backwards", a track most reminiscent of Rickie Lee Jones, James Taylor, or Sheryl Crow in their prime. An artist with tremendous potential, I wouldn't be surprised if this is her last indie release. Get it now before you have to pay a fortune on E-Bay.
© Tom Semioli

Megan Slankard's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Mockingbird (mp3)

Pierce Pettis, "Great Big World", Compass Records 7, 2004

An honest, southern, wheat straw and molasses voice -- there's just a hint of Lyle Lovett -- and a thoughtful songwriter's sensibility grace this, the eighth release by Pierce Pettis. The classic cut on this release is the traditional "Shady Grove", with its classic folk chorus anchored by the gravitas of an upright bass. It should be an instant signature song for Pettis. Trad lovers will love this one. Another noteworthy cut is the arresting title song co-written by David Wilcox and featuring Nance Pettit's understated harmonies. "Alabama 1959", about the racial ambiguity of that place and era, is perhaps the most interesting song on the CD. It is lyrically ambitious, if not entirely successful, in capturing a time that was, as Pettis says, "innocent and messed up", a time when a thin veneer of civility masked big-time ugliness. The Stuart Duncan violin work here counterpoints the lyric with an undertone of empathy. The tenderness of a committed father shines through "Black Sheep Boy", featuring some telling lyrics: "Can't stop his hands / make his feet be still / Tells himself he won't / But he knows he always will / Cause he's a black sheep boy". The take is warm and insightful, capturing a father's loving predicament. There's a great violin-fingerstyle guitar interplay on the chorus and bridge of this one. The closer, "Song of Songs", with its spare arrangement, allows Pettis' voice to finally cut through in sharp relief: "'Til my captured heart / Cries out your name..." This delicate fingerstyle hymn to love strikes an appropriate closing note to a respectable outing by an accomplished songwriter.
© Steve Klingaman

Pierce Pettis' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Another Day in Limbo (RealAudio)

El McMeen, "The Soul of Christmas Guitar", Piney Ridge Music 111, 2004

Fingerstyle guitar enthusiasts became aware of El McMeen in the late 1980s and early nineties when his early recordings of Celtic, sacred and Christmas music became available and he appeared on performance and instructional videos produced by Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop. McMeen has more recently recorded original compositions and instrumental arrangements of American pop and R & B songs (included on his CDs "Breakout" and "Dancing the Strings"). On this Christmas recording he returns to more familiar territory, at least for those who know of his background playing hymns and Celtic music. McMeen's strengths are strong melodic presentation, introducing emotional complexity to familiar tunes by using altered chords or bass notes and an unhurried sense of time that conveys solace to the listener. He occasionally strengthens a melodic line by playing octaves and otherwise creates interest with melodic or rhythmic variations, or both as on "What Child is This?" ("Greensleeves"). In addition to this tune, highlights include "Angels We Have Heard on High", "Silent Night", and the medley, "Once in Royal David's City / We Three Kings", each benefiting from McMeen's well-chosen harmonic alterations and relaxed pace. "The Soul of Christmas Guitar" will be an excellent addition to holiday music collections. And, once again, El McMeen provides plenty of good arranging and performing fodder for fingerstyle guitarists. © Patrick Ragains

El McMeen's Website Buy it here

Kaki King, Legs to Make Us Longer, Epic Records, 2004

Kaki King combines her exceptionally strong compositional skills and sense of dynamics with technical adventurousness to produce exciting, listenable music. "Legs to Make Us Longer" is her second full length CD. She uses traditional fingerstyle techniques, low alternate tunings, harmonics, detuning, slide, tapping and overhand fretting on acoustic and electric guitars. Tunes such as "Frame" and "Magazines" show the influences of Michael Hedges and Preston Reed, while "Doing the Wrong Thing" evokes the Pat Metheny Band. King's techniques and influences, however, are no more than points of departure. Repeated playing cemented my impression that King has a wide frame of reference, including 20th-century classical and surrealist elements (i.e., combining disparate, "found" sounds) in addition to the already-noted guitaristic approaches. A few tracks include supportive percussion or violin. "My Insect Life" is the CD's lone vocal, where King almost whispers over strummed, low-strung chords, bass, percussion, cello and electric slide guitar. On "Nails" (a hidden track that closes the CD), she employs a slide technique to create sounds resembling the kalimba, or African thumb piano. Having moved on from her early days of performing on New York subway platforms, King has recently opened shows for Keb Mo, David Byrne, Charlie Hunter and Robert Randolph. Expect to hear more from Kaki King - she is a powerful, gifted musician.
© Patrick Ragains

Kaki King's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Ingots (RealAudio)

Guy Davis, "Legacy", Red House Records CD175, 2004

"Legacy", the new release and seventh CD by Guy Davis, is a superb recording of acoustic country blues. This collection of blues classics and original material is by far his very best work to date. While listening to "Legacy", I couldnít help but wonder if he possibly traveled back in time and learned from the masters themselves. Davis delivers genuine authenticity and deep understanding of the genre on each of the albums 15 tracks, his growth as an artist clearly shines from start to finish. "Legacy" contains seven blues classics from legends like Mississippi John Hurt, Sleepy John Estes, Lightnin' Hopkins and Skip James, Davis performing these with the slightest variation. Eight tracks are original compositions, showcasing this singer-songwriter's intuitive talent, each song reflecting the essence of this treasured format. His method in combining blues classics with his own material has resulted in a wonderful balance of music throughout the album. Davis has the ability to integrate a natural purity to the overall sound of the genre, making "Legacy" a solid, cohesive recording. A few examples are, "I Just Canít Help Loving You" a moving, passionate song with strong vocals and fine mandolin accompaniment. "Red Goose" is a fast paced, banjo driven country blues tune with plenty of bluegrass overtones. "We All Need More Kindness In This World", this gospel style, country blues tune delivers a very simple message for everyone. The very best Davis original happens to be the opening track of "Legacy", "Uncle Tomís Dead". This powerful opening number is a standard 12 bar blues, overlapped by a distinct urban, hip-hop mix, with lyrics thatíll definitely grab your attention. Youíll find Davis and his son Martial, strongly debating the generational divide surrounding the blues, its history and its place in todays society. Davis is no stranger to the performing arts, heís the son of actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. He starred in musicals, even worked as an actor on the daytime soap, "One Life To Live". Davis is a storyteller who found his calling in the blues, with six recordings, two W.C. Handy nominations this year and now the latest release of his new recording Legacy, Davis has earned his place within the blues community. No longer just a blues guitarist, Davis is a well respected musician, considered one of the finest contemporary country bluesman and part of the present day country blues revival. There isnít a bad track to be found on "Legacy", even the packaging for this new CD is unique and very inviting with itís "comic book" theme, definitely a must-see. I highly recommend "Legacy" for blues enthusiasts or anyone who enjoys quality fingerpicking acoustic country blues.
© Pamela L. Dow

Guy Davis' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Come Back Baby (RealAudio)

Adam Rafferty Trio, "Three Souls", CAP974, 2004

"Three Souls" is guitarist Adam RaffertyĻs third jazz album as leader and the first for which he wrote all the material. Rafferty has played with acts such as Benny Golson, Paul West, and the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band led by Jimmy Owens, and has sat in with a wide array of artists including George Benson, Norah Jones, and jazz guitarist John Abercrombie. He is joined on "Three Souls" by bassist Dan Boller and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Rafferty's style is fluid, unrestrained, unpretentious, his tone warm and inviting. At times, "Three Souls" is reminscent of Pat Metheny's jazzier sounding small group albums. Like Metheny, Rafferty never plays flurries of notes and arpeggios simply because he can. Rather, he has a deep, measured connection with the music, a connection which bassist Boller and drummer Fujiwara support and deepen throughout the album. Rafferty shines brightest on the blues and more modal fare, calling to mind the classic guitar work of Wes Montgomery and the young George Benson. RaffertyĻs even got a tune on "Three Souls" titled, in tribute, "Blues for Wes and George". The fiery, modal "Tempest" is based on a minor riff that modulates in the tradition of Miles Davis' "So What?", a chord progression that has been a favorite of jazz guitarists for nearly five decades. And "Blues for My Shoes", is another convincing blues composition worth a listen. But the jazz/funk "Bootieology" shows Rafferty and bandmates at their down-home best. Check it out. © Chip O'Brien

Adam Rafferty's Website Buy it here
Listen to America (mp3)

Kate Campbell, "Sing Me Out", Compadre Records 6-16892-58712-5 , 2004

Getting to "the deepest part inside" the human heart is Kate Campbell's quest. On the journey, she follows a tuneful and sharply observed backroad. She sweetly sings about real people, tales both tall and small packed with telling details: the "man who used bowling balls to make a rosary in his yard"; "old gravediggers turning up the ground"; the joys of funeral food. Her songs rarely stray from the experiences of this daughter of a Baptist preacher, born in Sledge, Mississippi, and raised in Nashville. The South is a presence: the garden, the church house, butter beans, and Alabama clay. Only a true daughter of Dixie (albeit a prodigal one) can rhyme prayers and spare. Faith is another constant, with the Lord, preachers, the devil, and death everywhere. But Campbell's faith is never blind. She's still looking "to find faith to spare" spending her "days with music and words." For those melodies and lyrics, Campbell has established a fruitful partnership with Will Kimbrough, accomplished sideman, songwriter (Jimmy Buffett recently covered his "Piece of Work"), and recording artist. His production provides a delicious acoustic setting highlighted by his work on six string, slide, mandolin, banjo and accordion. Kimbrough's picking on the Regal Resonator puts the swing into "Heart of Hearts." Listen for the bouzouki and glockenspiel in the opening theme of the melancholy "Waiting for the Weather to Break." Kimbrough's old time banjo sets the scene in the ominous "Signs Following." In this song of blind faith and domestic violence a gospel choir singing responsively builds the irony. Campbell's world is large enough to encompass spiritual materialism, visionary art ("Ave Maria Grotto"), humor, and hum-able music. She'll help you spot the devil in holy garb and the saint in overalls, while supplying the tunes to get a song going in your heart of hearts.
© David Kleiner

Kate Campbell's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Ave Maria Grotto (mp3)

FiveWise, "Out of Line", FW8299A, 2004

The commercial success of bands such as The Dave Matthews Band and Hootie and the Blowfish have spawned a whole platter-full of college-oriented and quality acts whose music has acoustic guitar at its core: OAR, Dashboard Confessional, Guster. Add another one to the plate, FiveWise. These five twentysomethings are led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Ken Mehler, and the 2-CD set "Out of Line" catches them, and the considerable energy they generate, very live indeed. Mehler is joined by Joe O'Brien on bass, Charlie Sayer on percussion, Mike Keyes on drums, and Craig Struble on organ... er... make that harmonica which sounds very much like organ. Struble is the wild card in this band, a player with John Popper's chops (OK, not quite that fast) who is not afraid to experiment with his instrument by sending it through a Leslie and successfully finding a very nontraditional niche for harp in this music, a niche that works exceptionally well. Mehler has the buzzing energy of Mike Errico and sustains it through the entire two CDs -- understandable if this was a studio recording, but when one considers that "Out of Line" is a chronicle of just one live gig -- you wonder if Mehler has found the same cosmic wellspring of stamina and bravado that Mick Jagger's been tapping into all these years. FiveWise's music will resonate with the college crowd, and well it should.
© Alan Fark

FiveWise's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Victoria Falls (mp3)

Mark Casstevens, "Acoustic Inventions", JMC Music 382, 2004

Youíve heard his work -- many, many times. And youíve enjoyed his behind-the-scenes' playing, even if you didnít know who it was. But quintessential Nashville session artist Mark Casstevens now allows a few photons of the spotlight to shine his way with his solo collection, "Acoustic Inventions". Casstevensí credits include playing on 98 singles that have hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts, accompanying more than 250 different artists along the way. This 13-track disc shows why this multi-instrumentalist fingerstyle marvel is in such demand. A summer-breeze warm tone and gossamer touch bring his compositions to life. But while adept on nylon and steel string guitars, harmonica, banjo, mandolin, bass and keyboard, his work on nylon string stands out. "Claire" and "Tracy" are lovely melodies, and "Gladrags" quietly wraps itself around your ears. Casstevens adds a few session pals of his own to flesh out the tracks, and they rightly take a low-key supporting role. If Casstevens can be faulted, it is his enthusiasm to display too much of his considerable talent, as with his arrangement of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", in which he takes up guitar, bass, harmonica and banjo, perhaps to the detriment of the soul of the tune. Generally, however, he leaves us wanting more, not less, especially of that sweet guitar work. Casstevens thoughtfully offers some of his arrangements in tab form through his website.
© Fred Kraus

Mark Cassteven's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Claire (mp3)

Bola Sete, Live at Grace Cathedral, Samba Moon Records 2004

Why do I love this CD? As a trained classical guitarist, this recently discovered 1976 live performance by legendary Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete has everything I've been trained since childhood to dislike: frequent buzzing, wrong or missing notes, a bright tone quality to the sound, unclear arpeggios, and he even throws in the occasional poorly executed tremolo. All of that becomes irrelevant however, since this recording also offers some of the most inspired, soulful South American guitar playing anyone could ever hope to hear. One is well advised to find a comfortable seat in which to listen to this entire performance attentively. It is the nuances of Sete's style and interpretation that carry this disc. These details are supported by the overall architecture of the recital, which has a beautifully constructed program that smoothly guides the listener from one piece to the next. The compositions are written primarily by Sete, however there are the occasional pieces by others, most notably two works by the equally famous Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell. Although melodically pleasing in the beginning, Sete tends to build through his own works towards extended strumming passages seemingly for the purpose of a strong ending. This format, although rhythmically driven and exciting for the audience, became somewhat tiresome after 10 tracks and nearly an hour of music. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the 15 minute fourth track entitled "Flamenco Fantasy". Unfortunately Sete's compositional style does not account for the necessary structure to carry a piece of such a length, leaving this listener thoroughly ready for its completion before the 10 minute mark. Minor criticisms aside however, this CD offers the raw emotion and excitement that one rarely encounters in solo guitar recordings.
© Timothy Smith

Bola Sete's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to O Astronauto (mp3)

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DVD: "Render: Spanning Time with Ani DiFranco"

Ani DiFranco Songbook with transcriptions: "Up Up Up Up Up Up"

Ani DiFranco Songbook with transcriptions: "Best of Ani DiFranco"

Ani DiFranco bio: "Righteous Babe"

Robert Johnson tribute DVD (with Guy Davis, Keb' Mo', Peter Green and others)

The Guitar of Laurence Juber, transcriptions

The Guitar of Ed Gerhard, transcriptions

Mark Hanson's Fingerstyle Christmas Guitar: 12 Beautiful Songs & Carols for Solo Guitar

Christmas Songs for Beginning Guitar

Fingerstyle Guitar Christmas