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52 Guitars: Week 42

Daniel Lanois

Most of my entries in this series have emphasized technical brilliance, though not, I hope, empty brilliance: I haven't included anyone who doesn't have something interesting to say musically. But there's a place for people who don't dazzle you with speed, and yet have the ability to move you. Daniel Lanois is one of these.

If he has a lot of money in the bank, it's probably because of his work as producer for many artists whose names are better known than his: Bob Dylan (Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind), U2 (The Joshua TreeAchtung Baby, and others), Emmylou Harris (the masterpiece Wrecking Ball). One thing most of those recordings have in common is a richly reverberant and mysterious guitar sound which is something of a trademark with him. He's also a brilliant artist in his own right, and if you listen to one of his solo albums you see immediately where that atmosphere comes from. Here are two selections from his solo instrumental album Belladonna.

"The Deadly Nightshade": 




To my taste his albums are a little uneven, but if you were to take the best of all of them you'd have a body of work that would stand with anything produced in the past 50 years. Not only is it brilliant musically, but it shows a deep religious sensibility. From his first solo album, Acadie, here's the instrumental "White Mustang II": 


And here's a non-instrumental track which is a great example of the guitar-based texture and ambience he creates for a song. He's the only player/producer I know who can make a full-on distorted guitar chord feel like a warm embrace. You really need to hear this on a decent sound system to appreciate the instrumental work, because there's nothing ostentatious about it. There's a deep bass line that you probably won't even hear on computer speakers. From Shine, "I Love You":


What is that rare quality that makes a work of art a tear-jerker even though it's not sad?

52 Guitars: Week 41

Doc Watson

I'm pressed for time today, but I don't want to put this off, so I won't say much. You already know who Doc Watson was, right? If not, you can read about him here. I'll confine my remarks to repeating what Dylan said about him: that his playing was like water flowing from a spring. 

"Windy and Warm": 


"Black Mountain Rag": 


"Deep River Blues": 



52 Guitars: Week 40

Chet Atkins

This is for Robert Gotcher, who asked if I was ever going to feature Chet Atkins. Actually I wasn't planning to. I know Atkins was an extremely good player, but the kind of music he played has never been all that appealing to me. And I have to admit I was prejudiced against him early on, by a classical player who was dismissive of Atkins's forays into that repertoire. That's really beside the point, of course;  I doubt that Atkins intended to put himself into competition with Julian Bream et.al.; he probably just wanted to play good music of any kind.

On the basis of what I've been able to find on YouTube, my first reservation still holds. But man, the guy could play. "Stars and Stripes Forever":


I don't know if it would be correct to call "Wildwood Flower" his signature tune, but it's one I used to hear associated with his name. Embedding of the video has been disabled, so I'll just have to link to it: "Wildwood Flower".

Also not embeddable: "Orange Blossom Special". Astonishing clarity and fluidity--and he makes it look so utterly effortless.  (Sorry about the harp player's getup etc.--he is really good, though.) I recall a friend, many years ago, saying "If you ever start thinking you're good [on guitar], go to Nashville." Well, notice in the "Orange Blossom" clip that the other guy is doubling Atkins's lead through most of it, except for the really high-speed stuff. 

52 Guitars: Week 39

Ralph Towner

I don't think I had even heard Ralph Towner's name when I saw Blue Sun in a record store sometime back in the 1980s and bought it on the strength of the cover art. I don't know how well you can make out the photograph that occupies the center of it, but it's a very beautiful sea and sky picture that makes me think of a Scandinavian summer.  



Image swiped from the great ECM fan site between sound and space 

Not everything on the album lived up to the promise of that image, but enough of it did that I didn't regret the purchase, and have bought two other Towner albums over the years. Most of his work is on the wonderful ECM label, and I've learned since that I can pretty well rely on finding anything issued on it at least interesting.

Towner's music occupies a sort of indeterminate territory which comes out of what could broadly be considered a jazz culture or sensibility, but is not exactly jazz, and not exactly anything else, either. It could be called ECM territory, as a lot of the label's output fits there. 

From Solstice, which I don't have, but which Allmusic.com says is his best album, and so worth investigating, here is "Nimbus":


From Ana, "The Reluctant Bride" and "Green and Golden":


I don't know of anyone else in the world who can play a 12-string like this. "Spirit Lake" can be found on Solo Concert, but this is a different and even more spectacular performance. 


52 Guitars: Week 38

Jim Thomas

Who? Well, allow me to introduce you to The Mermen. Don't be too quick to turn up the sound.


They're an instrumental trio who began around 1990 as a sort of neo-surf band, but they've gone far afield from that, though you can still hear some of it in their sound, which at times might be described as Dick Dale meets Jimi Hendrix. Their web site calls it "psychedelic instrumental ocean music," and says that the band's name was derived from the Jimi Hendrix song/soundscape "1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be").

Thomas is the guitarist, and along with bassist Allen Whitman and drummer Martyn Jones the Mermen make music that is both fierce and melodic. Their 1995 album A Glorious Lethal Euphoria is one of my all-time favorite albums, period. The opening track from it, "Pulpin' Line", is the one I really wanted to use instead of the preceding track, but the album version is not on YouTube. There are some decent live performances of it, but they don't have the same intensity, and the sound quality is not so great.

Here's something from that album. Again, don't be quick to turn up the sound.


They aren't always fast and loud and noisy; sometimes they're slow and loud and noisy, and sometimes they're even quiet. "And the Flowers They'll Bloom", all nearly-ten-minutes of it, is a showcase for the expressive power of an electric guitar and a rack full of effects.


There is a strangely mystical quality about the album, as is suggested by the cover (what you see in the two "videos" above), and by some of the song titles: "The Drowning Man Knows His God," "With No Definite Future and No Purpose Except to Prevail Somehow." Other titles are just whimsical, often somewhat bent, e.g. "Scalp Salad."

The Mermen seem to have become a sort of cult California jam band. Until a few minutes ago, when I looked at their web site, I didn't think they'd released an album since 2000's Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show, but there is a more recent one, In God We Trust. I like Road Show but I'll be surprised if they ever surpass Euphoria. If you like what I've posted here, get it--you won't be sorry. (The first track is from Songs of the Cows, a less-than-full-length follow-up to Euphoria and sounds very much like it, and is almost as good.)

52 Guitars: Week 37

Albert King

Here's the third of the Three Kings. Albert is maybe the least striking of the three: not as sophisticated as B.B., not as fiery as Freddy. But just as satisfying, and pretty much perfect as a representative of pure straight-up blues.

"Born Under a Bad Sign" contains one of the immortal complaints of the blues: "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all." I think that was probably a folk saying before Booker T. Jones and William Bell wrote the song, but that doesn't matter. (I see it had occurred at least once before in a commercial recording.) People of my generation, and younger ones who like the music of the '60s, have probably heard the song as performed by Cream on the Wheels of Fire album. Personally I never found Jack Bruce very enjoyable as a blues singer, and although that version has a lot of rock-and-roll intensity, it misses the mark in comparison to King's original. Here is his studio version, which does not particularly feature the guitar, but makes that famous riff pretty clear: 


And here's a very good live version:


 I only recently heard "Breaking Up Somebody's Home" for the first time, and was really struck by the lyric. Not a sentiment one can approve, obviously, but it tells a truth about the difficulty of the struggle against jealousy and misdirected romantic love: "After all, I didn't make myself."


And here's a great live version of the Elmore James classic, "The Sky Is Crying":


Here's King's Wikipedia entry. He was a big influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan (which is obvious if you've heard Vaughan's "Sky Is Crying") and there is an hour-long video of the two of them playing together, which can be found on YouTube, of course, no doubt in massive violation of copyright. I hadn't planned to feature Vaughan in one of these posts, which may seem surprising. He's a very very fine guitarist, obviously, but somehow his take on the blues has never appealed very strongly to me--it seems tense and overdriven. I reserve the right to change my mind, though.

52 Guitars: Week 36

Freddie King

Of all the black blues players from whom the English and other young white kids of the 1960s learned, Freddie King is probably the one who will strike a new listener as sounding more like, for instance, Eric Clapton, though the influence is of course the other way around. He has a loud and aggressive sound, closer to what would become blues-rock than some of his peers, like B.B. King.  I found a number of live performances from the early '70s on YouTube, and discovered that although there is some killer guitar work in them, overall they tend to seem over-driven and harsh in comparison with some of his earlier recorded work. 

Here, for instance, is a song for which he was well-known, "Have You Ever Loved a Woman?", in a live performance from 1970.


And here's the same song from the original 1960 recording. The sound is not great, and since the song had to fit on a 45 single, there's not room for a whole lot of guitar. But the vocal is richer and more varied, and overall it's just a more comfortable-feeling performance.


"Tore Down", 1963:


For another comparison, here's a live performance which I think is ca. 1970, though there is no info with the clip: faster tempo, impressive guitar, but overall just lacking in feeling, in my opinion.

But this "Ain't Nobody's Business", which seems to be from the same performance, is good--though to my taste it's still pushed a little too hard. I don't know if it was just his personality, or if the rock influence had begun to flow the other way.


There is an excellent compilation from Rhino, Hideaway: The Best of Freddie King, which includes 20 tracks recorded from the late 1950s until 1970, with emphasis on the earlier stuff. (Why "Hideaway"? Because it was his most popular single, and made the non-R&B pop charts.)

52 Guitars: Week 35

B.B. King

It's time for the Three Kings: Albert, B.B., and Freddy. B.B. is by far the most famous outside the blues world, but that's not why I'm featuring him first. It's because it only took a few minutes for me to find three good YouTube clips for him, and I need a bit longer for the other two.

According to the person who posted this on YouTube, King considers this to be one of his best performances. It was filmed at Sing Sing Prison, sometimes in the 1970s judging by the clothes. And I think that opening guy was on a TV show that I can't remember the name of. This is one of his signature songs, "How Blue Can You Get?" There's actually not all that much guitar in this number, but wow....


The first line of this is one of my favorite lyrics in all the blues.


And the classic "Stormy Monday":


Coincidentally, I've been watching the DVD of Eric Clapton's 2007 Crossroads Festival. B.B. King is there, and he gives quite a moving tribute to Clapton. That segment of the concert is on YouTube, including parts of one of the songs he played, the massively politically incorrect "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss." And by the way I strongly recommend that DVD to anyone who likes electric guitar.

52 Guitars: Week 34

Bill Frisell

Like his contemporary Pat Metheny, Frisell has done a huge amount of recording. He also shows the influence of rock on their generation of jazz players (they're both in their early 60s). Unlike Metheny, though (as far as I know), Frisell has often taken to the noisy effects developed by rock guitarists.

I don't have enough acquaintance with his music to be able to select anything that I could call his best or even most representative work. The album I know best is a slightly odd one from 1991 called Where in the World? Judging by it, and of a couple of his more recent albums, he seems to be a very humble bandleader: though the collection is credited to The Bill Frisell Band, it's hardly a guitar showpiece. The compositions, all by Frisell, are interesting, somehow off-kilter things like this one, "Rob Roy": sometimes melodic, sometimes raucous, never conventional. Let me warn you that this one pauses at 3:15 and then comes back rather loud. 


Some years ago while browsing the CDs in the local library I saw one by the Ginger Baker Trio called Going Back Home. I thought that sounded intriguing and checked it out. I recognized the name of the bass player, Charlie Haden, a very famous one in the jazz world. But I don't recall that the name of the guitarist, Bill Frisell, meant anything to me. (Everybody knows who Ginger Baker is, right?) I liked the album pretty well. Looking around for YouTube clips for this post, I found what seems to be most of a concert by that trio, and it's very good. Since it's a trio and Frisell is the lead, these songs will do very well to demonstrate his gifts. Mostly he uses a more or less normal jazz kind of tone and technique here, but he kicks in the effects at one point in the twelve-and-a-half minute jam "Ramblin'".


As you can hear, his playing tends to be kind of eccentric, with a lot of space and and what often seems to me an odd relation to the beat. But it's always interesting. "When We Go" is more conventional than the two pieces above, though not in a bad way at all. This is a lovely little thing, and Frisell's solo is a jewel of subtle variations.


I have to say, before I go, that it drives me a bit crazy to look at that headless guitar. I'm glad that design didn't become the norm.

Charlie Haden died last month at 76, after a long and very illustrious career. RIP.



52 Guitars: Week 33

Pat Metheny

I've been thinking that I should include some more jazz guitarists, because there are certainly plenty of them who are very impressive musicians. But I really don't have a lot of acquaintance with their work, which is because I don't listen to jazz guitar all that much, which is because I don't really respond to it the way I do many other forms of guitar music. That's partly because jazz guitarists typically use a very clean and pure tone, and when it comes to electric guitar I like the dirty and sustained tones that rock and blues players tend to use. To my ears, the typical jazz guitar tone is just less expressive than that of either a purely acoustic guitar or a noised-up electric.

But more importantly, I frequently don't grasp what's going on musically in jazz. I don't have much technical knowledge of music, and I can't describe in musical terms what's involved in, say, Mark Knopfler's famous "Sultans of Swing" lead, but I respond to it. I can on some level feel, if not articulate, the connection of what he's playing to the fundamental structure of the song. But much jazz has a more subtle and complex harmonic structure, and less elemental appeal, and requires a better ear and more knowledge than I have to be really appreciated.

Such were my thoughts over the past few days as, having decided to feature Pat Metheny this week, I looked around for a few things to post. He has a huge body of recorded work, and I've only heard a few bits of it. I sampled a number of jazz tracks, but there weren't many that really grabbed me. Perhaps if I listened to them more...but I didn't have time. I knew, though, that I would use the title track from one of the two or three Metheny albums I own, New Chautauqua, from 1979. It's not very typical of his work from the '70s, being all acoustic, and all multi-tracked Metheny, and not really jazz at all. I don't know what genre to call it, but I really like it.


Another Metheny album that I own, and like a lot, is 1980's As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. It's not, strictly speaking, a Pat Metheny album, but a collaboration with keyboardist Lyle Mays, and is really more a keyboard and group album than a guitar album. But roughly the last half of "It's For You" features a really fine guitar solo. 


It occurs to me that the title phrase will soon entirely lose the meaning it has for anyone who grew up before cell phones, when there was generally one telephone line and one telephone number per household. The phone rang, someone picked it up and said "Hello," and, if the caller wanted to speak to someone else, yelled "It's for you" to another person in the house. Already for some time the scenes in movies where someone in trouble searches desperately for a pay phone have seemed very dated.

 And here's a good one from 1978's self-titled album by the Pat Metheny Group, also featuring Lyle Mays: "Phase Dance".