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.

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.

Brittany Howard – Defying Categorization

Brittany Howard, leader of the band Alabama Shakes, is up for four Grammy Awards this year in four different musical categories. Defying musical categorization is something Howard has done since the beginning of her career, but this year she’s stretched those boundaries even further. Her first solo album, Jaime, was released in September and is up for Best Alternative Music Album. It’s an award Alabama Shakes won as a band in 2016 for Sound & Color.

“Stay High” is nominated for best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song. An early release of the single “History Repeats”, which is included on Jaime, was nominated in this category last year, and these awards were won by Alabama Shakes in 2016 for “Don’t Wanna Fight”.

Brittany is also up for Best American Roots Performance for “Short and Sweet”. This is an award Alabama Shakes won in 2018 for “Killer Diller Blues” from the documentary movie American Epic Sessions. Here’s a solo acoustic version.

Finally, Brittany is up for Best R&B Performance for “Goat Head”. This is Howard’s first nomination in this genre. Here’s a live performance featuring the killer band she’s put together, from the Save Our Stages Festival. The lyrics, which start at about 1:30 are worth the wait.

Rock Hall 2020

A couple of weeks ago the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted its Class of 2020. T. Rex, The Doobie Brothers, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Whitney Houston and the Notorious B.I.G. Wow. Let’s sample some of that breadth.

Marc Bolan and T. Rex were credited with launching glam rock, and this video of their biggest hit “Bang a Gong” shows off some satin and glitter in a sea of other 1971 styles. And who’s that sitting in on keyboards? Someone who would set new standards for glam himself, Elton John!

Joan Jett covered T. Rex’s “Jeepster” for the tribute album AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex. The album was released this past September, in time for the band’s Rock Hall induction, and Joan did a pandemic performance on The Late Late Show to show it off.

Depeche Mode got off the ground with their first U.K. top ten hit “Just Can’t Get Enough” in 1981. In 1984 they achieved their greatest single hit, “People Are People”, and 1989’s Violator was their masterpiece and top charting album. Here’s a video of “People Are People” and Johnny Cash’s cover of Violator’s “Personal Jesus”.

Whitney Houston scored three #1 singles from her eponymous 1984 debut album, including “How Will I Know” with a synth intro worthy of a Depeche Mode track.

One of the best selling singles of all time was Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You” recorded for the movie The Bodyguard. The song was written and recorded by Dolly Parton nearly 20 years earlier. Since Whitney’s soaring chorus is burned into your memory, here’s Dolly’s original.

The Old Guard Still Bringin’ It

They say that Rock is dead, but don’t tell that to the bands that have been in the game for decades and are still delivering new music.

At it for thirty years, with three of four original band members on board, Smashing Pumpkins will release their eleventh studio album, Cyr, on Black Friday. The thick guitars of their earliest hits like “Cherub Rock” have been replaced by synths, but Billy Corgan’s voice is as distinctive as ever. Here’s the music video from the album’s title track.

Foo Fighters formed in 1995, after the release of the album Foo Fighters on which Dave Grohl played every instrument on every track, save guitar on one song. Grohl has been a standard bearer for guitar rock, from the first track of that first album “This is a Call”, to “Shame” performed for the first time on Saturday Night Live last night.

Though founding member Malcolm Young passed away in 2017, brother Angus, long-time lead singer Brian Johnson, and original drummer Phil Ruud, will release Power Up this week, with tracks that sound like they were made in their early days. Here is “Shot in The Dark”, the first song released form the new album.

Top of the heap of artists who still bring the rock and roll is “The Boss”, Bruce Springsteen. Letter to You was released on October 23rd and it made Bruce the first artist to have a top 5 album in 6 consecutive decades. The title track has gotten a lot of airplay in the past few weeks, but here is the second video released from the album, “Ghosts”, that is vintage E-Street Band. You know you want to see this live!