Category Archives: Reviews

Review : Nathan Salsburg “Affirmed” LP/CD (No Quarter, 2011)

nathan_salsburg_affirmedSince I already told the story of my friendly history with Nathan Salsburg in my review of his Avos duet LP earlier this year, I’ll cut right to the chase in talking about the compelling music on Affirmed, which is the Louisville-based guitarist’s debut full-length as a soloist.  Salsburg’s picking is clean, confident, and sometimes even a bit flashy. These eight upbeat and melodic tracks clearly indicate that Salsburg is a fingerpicker with little to no interest in the down-tuned, borderline new age exotica being explored by so many of his peers… and Affirmed sounds all the better for it.

Opener “Sought & Hidden” sets the tone: bouncy and upbeat, Salsburg throws down a strong alternating bass with nimble melodic figures in the middle and upper registers.  Like most of the tracks on the album, “Sought & Hidden” is highly composed with a strong narrative quality in the way the song unfolds. The primary theme is probably the most “minor” sounding of the entire record, though the mood here is anything but dark.  “New Bold Ruler’s Joys” picks up the pace a bit.  This jaunty rag-blues originally appeared on one of Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem collections, and this newer recording is more or less faithful to the original rendering. This track has a pleasing sophistication to it, with some very cosmopolitan jazz chords and cadences. Continue reading

Review : Cian Nugent “Doubles” LP/CD (VHF Records, 2011)

cian_DoublesI first became aware of Dubliner Cian Nugent when his solo guitar contributions to Imaginational Anthem Volume Three and We Are All One, in the Sun: Tribute to Robbie Basho appeared in back-to-back years.¹  Both recordings evidence clean, confident playing and command of the freeform, open-tuned style that continues to prevail in today’s acoustic guitar underground.  Cian’s debut album, Doubles, was released earlier this year by VHF Records, joining a recent string of excellent guitar-oriented albums issued by the label, including Jesse Sparhawk & Eric Carbonara’s Sixty Strings and Alexander Turnquist’s Hallway of Mirrors.

One cannot help but ponder the meaning of the album’s title, “doubles.”  Simply stated, it is a symmetrical work, in that it pairs together two side-long pieces that mirror one another structurally and musically.  On both sides, series of improvised passages comprise two primary movements that repeat, resulting in a loose, “ABAB” form. Additionally, for each work Nugent establishes a vocabulary of intervals and melodic phrases built from adjacent tones and half-tones.  The resulting “duplicitous” voicings provide the album’s primary musical themes as well as the constant sensation of push and pull. I could go on!  Let’s just say the “doubles” motif gives the work a dimension beyond pure emotion, which I found somewhat unique for a freeform guitar album. Continue reading

Review : James Elkington & Nathan Salsburg “Avos” LP/MP3 (Tompkins Square, 2011)

AvosLife is full of funny coincidences, isn’t it?  Exactly a decade ago, I was playing guitar in The Higher Burning Fire, something of a chamber-pop group that (by my influence) dabbled with folky and fingerpicked guitar patterns.  In the middle of a full-band relocation from Kansas to New York City, I received an interesting phone call from our drummer, already in the Big Apple – “I met this guy, he’s really cool, he’s gotta be in the band…  you’ll love him, he plays just like you!”  My excitable drummer must have somehow forgotten that I also played just like me, and that I was but one of the three more-than-competent guitarists in our band… a fourth guitarist?  Did it really matter what he played like?  His mind was made up, though, and I took the whole thing as a sign that maybe I didn’t want to carry on with the band any more.  “They’ll be fine, no shortage of guitarists there!” They did the New York thing (for a little over a year) and I found my way up to Boston.

Can you tell where I’m going with this?  That mysterious fourth guitarist was none other than Nathan Salsburg, freshly arrived to NYC from Louisville and working for The Alan Lomax Archives, a post that he holds to this day.  When I went back to New York a little while later to see what my former band mates had been making of themselves in their adopted home, I found Nathan to be not only a great guitarist but a sweet guy as well, and we hit it off talking about Bert Jansch and Scott Walker.

Fast forward about seven years… the band had long broken up and gone our separate ways, and I had devoted myself almost exclusively to acoustic guitar music.  I picked up the fantastic third volume in Tompkin Square’s Imaginational Anthem series and saw who else but Nathan listed among the artists on the back of the disc.  His standout track “Bold Ruler’s Joys” was not only one of the disc’s (and series’) highlights, but was one of the most compelling and confident acoustic instrumentals that I’d heard from any of the current generation of young fingerpickers.  Nathan didn’t play “just like me” at all, he was worlds better, in a league of his own!  I quickly got a message to the man, and we started keeping in touch regularly.

Over the last couple of years, Nathan has been sending me some of his works-in-progress, mostly next-level fingerstyle jams named after race horses… for he has moved back to his native Louisville, and the Kentucky Derby is like the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras combined down there!  Last year, I began hearing from Nathan about another project, a guitar duet record involving a guy named Jim from Chicago.  Jim turned out to be James Elkington, of The Zincs and The Horses Ha, who also turned out (by yet another coincidence) to be the drummer for Brokeback, a Chicago group led by the legendary Doug McCombs (he of Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day). I’ve shared a bill with Doug many times in the last few years, since he and my duet partner Dave are old friends from Dave’s Chicago days. It’s a small, small musical world folks, and it’s only getting smaller… but this back story and all its little coincidences could not have led to a more exciting moment, and now I have the great pleasure to review James’ and Nathan’s stellar debut Avos. Continue reading

Review : Bert Jansch Conundrum “In Concert, 1980” DVD (Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 2011)

Conundrum_BertAll apologies, I’ve fallen very behind on my reviews this year… though it’ s not due to a dearth of worthy releases!  Since it’s been a little while since I’ve gushed about the legendary Bert Jansch, I thought I would talk about his latest release, In Concert, 1980, out now on SGGW.  From what I understand, this show had already made the rounds on the VHS circuit (thanks Yair!) but this new issue, part of Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Artistry series, features bonus footage from a second concert, as well as a short documentary entitled A Man and His Songs.  The material and performances on offer here nicely bridge the gap between Jansch’s classic solo period of the mid ’60s and the sober, welcome renaissance  of recent years… and for that I consider it a document of utmost importance…  but In Concert is also a rare glimpse of Jansch at his collaborative best, playing both new compositions and compelling arrangements of old favorites, with players who not only have the chops to keep up with the unpredictable Scottish guitar hero, but also carry a genuine affection for the man and his art.

The Bert Jansch Conundrum was a loose sort of group that Jansch formed in the late 70’s, presumably to add a little muscle to his sound and recreate the vibe of some of his albums from that decade.  Auxiliary musicians in those years included Rod Clements, Mike Piggott, and the two men who join Jansch for this concert, mandocellist Martin Jenkins (who left his unmistakable stamp on 1979’s fascinating Avocet) and demure electric bassist Nigol Portman-Smith.  This trio is a relatively tight one, and most of the tunes follow a similar presentation : Bert singing lead and chording, while Jenkins keeps the melody flowing on violin or mandocello and sings backup. Portman-Smith’s understated yet bouncy bass does a great job of holding down the low end, and these men do keep quite a solid rhythm, despite the lack of any percussion. Continue reading

Review : Sean Siegfried “Backwoods” CD/MP3 (Self Released, 2011)

SiegfriedI stumbled upon this short collection whilst browsing Bandcamp recently, and I’m glad I did.  Sean Siegfried is a UK-based guitarist who professes an appreciation for the work of Bert Jansch, Nick Drake, John Fahey and Dave Evans.  Though I don’t hear much of Evans in Siegfried’s playing (maybe a smidgen during closer “Asphalt”) he does well in evoking the other three…  “Sam’s Brewery” and “Passionate Rag” nail Fahey’s American Primitive style, with familiar tempos and boom-chick bass. Siegfried gets into more interesting territory on “Apples In Winter”, which has hints of both classical guitar and contemporary fingerstyle.  Though this waltz can become a little static at times, the guitarist does a nice job creating a somber, reflective mood.

“Compelled” is a distinctive, confident piece, and it puts me in mind of Duck Baker’s “Old World” (from Baker’s A Thousand Words album) with just a hint of early Renbourn thrown in.

With its Davy Graham-esque intro and strident second section “Ashill” may be my favorite track on the EP.  Though the running time of Backwoods is quite short (6 tracks in about 15 minutes) Siegfried manages to put forward a lot of ideas…   I look forward to hearing more from this young fingerpicker.

Stream Backwoods on Bandcamp
Visit Sean Siegfried’s Website