Acoustic Guitar Innovators

With a few guitars sitting on the other side of the room, and decades of watching and listening to acoustic guitar players, I thought I had some notion of the boundaries of how one could play the instrument. I was so wrong.

Topeka, Kanas born Andy McKee incorporates a wide range of tapping and percussive techniques into his work, and check out the slanted scale on the guitar in this video! He’s released a number of albums dating back to 2001’s Nocturne, and he’s the first artist signed to the record label of guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel. In addition to his own records, he’s contributed to albums by Lee Ritenour and Josh Groban, and he toured with Prince. McKee blew up on the internet in 2005 with videos from his third album, Art of Motion, including this song “Drifting”.

Jon Gomm’s career has been very independent, self producing and crowd-funding his albums, playing local venues in England, while also touring the world and playing guitar festivals. In all my years of watching guitar players, until this video I’d never seen anyone play melodies by tuning the strings. If you want to see more, here’s a link to the video that put him on the map, 2011’s “Passionflower”.

This video by 23-year old Russian, Alexandr Misko incorporates the tapping, percussion and tuning effects used by McKee and Gomm, and he throws in an Eminem rap on top. His internet launch began in 2016 with his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”.

If you want to explore this vein of acoustic guitar playing further, apparently the godfather of these techniques is the late Michael Hedges, followed by Preston Reed.

To Love Somebody

On Friday, Barry Gibb released Greenfields: The Gibbs Brothers’ Songbook (Vol. 1). Barry is the last surviving Gibb brother of the Bee Gees. On Greenfields he reworks a number of Bee Gees hits in collaboration with a who’s who of country music. A lot to get your head around there, but relax – this post isn’t about any of that.

The Bee Gees first major album, Bee Gees’ 1st, was released in 1967 and included “To Love Somebody”. The song was written by Barry and Robin Gibb, intended to be given to Otis Redding to record. But the Bee Gees released it in mid-1967, and Redding never got a chance to cover it before he died at the end of that year. Over the years, though, an incredibly wide range of artists did cover the song, and what a malleable piece of music it has proven to be. Let’s start by watching the Gibb brothers perform the original, decked out in full 1960s splendor.

In 1969 the song got soulful treatments that Redding never got the chance to provide. Nina Simone and Janis Joplin delivered these interpretations that show just how far the song could be stretched.

Nearly 40 years later, Smashing Pumpkins founder Billy Corgan selected the song for his first solo album, TheFutureEmbrace. The album version features Robert Smith of The Cure on backing vocals, but here’s Corgan singing it by himself and delivering a beautiful, hypnotic performance.

Tony Rice and a Stage Full of Bluegrass Stars

On Christmas Day, bluegrass legend Tony Rice passed away. His career began 50 years ago, and he helped define the progressive end of the genre. Here is Tony on stage in 1988 with a group of young musicians who have become legends in their own rights.

The banjo player on stage is Bela Fleck, who would form the progressive jazz group Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in that same year of 1988. The fellow with the awesome hat is Roy “Future Man” Wooten, playing percussion on the SynthAxeDrumitar. His incredible brother Victor is on bass.

The dobro player on stage is Jerry Douglas, the undisputed master of that instrument. He’s played with artists ranging from Dolly Parton to Ray Charles to Elvis Costello, and is a regular member of Alison Krauss and Union Station. Here’s Jerry interpreting Paul Simon’s “American Tune”.

The fiddle player on stage is Mark O’Connor, who has recorded 45 albums in as many years. His recordings have made the classical, jazz, country and bluegrass charts. Here’s O’Connor playing with the Boston Pops.

And lest we get away without paying enough attention to Tony Rice, here he plays “Shenandoah” after an intro music lesson. Skip to 1:40 if you want to bypass the lesson, but don’t skip the beautiful guitar playing.

Merry Christmas!

I’m proud of the Christmas music collection I’ve curated over the years – dozens of albums covering all the classics and spanning every conceivable genre. But there are a few songs in the collection, my “alternative classics”, that I need to hear for the season to really be complete. Hope you enjoy them. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

At the top of the list is “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” by James Brown. The song is from the Funky Christmas album, an incredible set all around from the Godfather of Soul, full of great grooves and great lyrics.

The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” is a bouncy piece of fun that hooks you, ’cause you just have to hear how the story ends.

The special harmonies of the Beach Boys make for creative takes on Christmas classics. But if you live in a cold winter climate, like I do, and wonder how Christmas feels when palm trees are outside you window, “Little St. Nick” by the Beach Boys is what I imagine.

And finally, the most bizarre Christmas song every recorded, “Christmas at K-Mart” by the late Root Boy Slim. K-mart sued to keep this song off the radio for many years, though it’s 7-11 that really takes it on the chin in the lyrics. And if this is your first exposure to Root Boy, do root around on YouTube to hear his madness and political commentary, 70’s style, with tremendous backing musicians.

American Epic Sessions

Among the things that somehow escaped me over the past few years is the 2017 documentary film The American Epic Sessions. The film surrounds the restoration of a 1920’s recording system, apparently the first to use an electronic microphone to record a room full of performers. The system cut a wax disc directly from the performance, and the cutting lathe was driven by a descending 100 lb. weight that provided about 3-1/2 minutes of recording time.

Once the restored system was operational, an A-list group of musicians showed up to take turns cutting tracks for the movie and for an expanded set of records.

Jack White created this gem, “Matrimonial Inclinations”. One take perfection.

Here’s Elton John with Jack providing a bit of backing.

And finally, here is Willie Nelson and the late Merle Haggard, who passed away before the film’s release.