Tag Archives: Fingerstyle

Interview : David Surette

davidsurette3Earlier this year, Work & Worry received a CD from David Surette, a fantastic instrumentalist and songwriter who resides up in Maine. Surette is my kind of picker : equal parts British folk revival, country blues, ragtime and traditional… well, that’s not totally true, his playing at times actually leans a little bit more to the British school than most American fingerpickers, which I guess is what I really love about it!

The performances on Sun Dog, all done in a single evening on a single microphone, are absolutely impeccable. All eight tracks feature clean, confident picking and a finely honed sense of composition, structure and ornamentation. It’s the kind of accomplished, out of nowhere record that is not only a joy to listen to, but makes a guitarist want to up his or her game… from the John Renbourn-esque “A Lot of Sir John” and “Cold Rain” to the feel-good raggin’ blues of “Frog’s Legs” and “Ukelele Stomp”,  Sun Dog is easily one of the best guitar recordings I’ve heard in a long time.

Surette’s liner notes on the CD do a fine job of describing the inception of these songs, and he also denotes the tunings… so I wanted to talk to Surette more about some of his perspectives on guitars, playing, and some of his influences.

W&W : Calling David Surette.. David, are you there?

Hey man, how’s it going?

W&W : Very well, how are you?

Good, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

W&W : Let’s talk about where you are and where you’ve been. You seem to have extremely strong ties to the music scene up in Maine… have you always lived in that part of the world? Where were you when your interest in guitar first developed, and what did you concentrate on when you were first starting out?

Well, I grew up in northern New Hampshire in the mountains, North Conway, which is right on the border with Maine. So I’ve always been a NH/ME kind of guy. I moved down to this area when I was going to college at UNH, from ’81-’85, and ended up sticking around. There’s a good local music scene here, and it’s close to a lot of other great spots, like Boston and Portland.

I started to play guitar when I was 14, and I’m 47 now.  I started out on electric and acoustic, mostly ’60s-’70s rock. I loved blues-rock, too, and rootsy stuff like The Dead, The Band, The Allmans, so I got into the blues and folk stuff that way, like checking out this guy Robert Johnson that the Stones were covering. I’m probably like a lot of other folks in that regard. I got into fingerpicking in college. Continue reading

Advertisements

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

John Renbourn Tackles Satie’s “Sarabande”

Renbourn_70sJohn Renbourn is a wonder. His recording career began in England during the mid-sixties, just as the late Davey Graham was blazing new trails with the acoustic guitar.  John followed Davey’s lead, performing on his early Transatlantic albums with a sense of abandon, cleverly weaving together musical styles and traditions from around the globe. Over time, Renbourn’s playing became more measured but also increasingly detailed, sometimes blurring the line where folk music ends and classical music begins.  While his discography features a wide variety of modes and collaborations, his solo albums from the late seventies, The Hermit and The Black Balloon in particular, feature expansive long-form guitar instrumentals that are among his most ambitious and best works.  The latest album, Palermo Snow (Shanachie Records, 2010) belongs to that lineage… I was excited to discover it included an arrangement of Erik Satie’s “Sarabande,”¹ as I’ve been absorbed in Satie’s music recently and, more importantly, imagined that interpreting it would be an interesting change of pace for Renbourn.

Satie’s piano compositions are generally regarded as precursors to ambient music, which he referred to as musique d’ameublement, or “furniture music.” Their quality is atmospheric, repetitive, slightly dissonant.  Satie is identified with the avant-garde for his later associations with Dada, though his early compositions are often referred to as “impressionist.”  The series of three “Sarabandes,” introduced in 1887, just a year prior to his best known work, the “Gymnopédies,” indeed have a drifting, romantic quality.  Here is the late French pianist’s Jacques Février’s rendition of Satie’s “Sarabande No.1”²:

A “sarabande” is a dance in triple meter.  From what I’ve gathered, it was developed in Spanish colonies in the sixteenth century and later banned in Spain for its sexual undertones.  The dance was revived and commonly used as movement within a suite during the Baroque period, when the German music theorist, Johann Matthesson, declared that it “expresses no passion other than ambition.”³ It’s easy to imagine how the peculiar reputation and history of this dance would appeal to Satie, whose sense of humor is well documented.  One even wonders if the circularity of his “Sarabandes” was intended to be satirical. Interestingly, John Renbourn included an electric guitar rendition of a Bach “Sarabande” on his fourth album, The Lady and the Unicorn.  Despite the heavy vibrato effect, it sounds more formal than Satie’s “Sarabandes,” and I suspect provides a better sense of a typical, Baroque version of the dance:

Adapting ambient music to the guitar provides one with an opportunity to obsess over each individual note or chord; to allow the overtones that occur during sustain, as well as fret and room noise, to become the “detail” of the piece.  The timbre of steel string guitar seems particularly well-suited to the task, especially compared with classical guitar.  Solo fingerstyle guitar music, by contrast, is a show of dexterity, where bass and melody lines interact in a complex, sometimes dizzying manner. Renbourn is regarded as a master of fingerstyle form, and would seem to reside in a different ballpark from the ambient musician.  I know from my own attempts to feather ambient pieces into a fingerstyle repertoire that the adjustment in mindset is not easy to manage in one sitting.  Not to suggest that John Renbourn is uninterested in tonality, it seems reasonable to point out that the opportunities for him to really fuss over it have been somewhat scarce in his music.  I can’t think of many examples from his recorded works that resemble Satie’s music, save perhaps the duet rendition of the Charles Mingus’ “Theme from The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers” with Stefan Grossman, which has impressionistic qualities.

Renbourn’s take on Satie’s “Sarabande” is similar in tempo to the Février example.  However, one gets the sensation, especially early on in the recording, that he feels slightly impatient and is struggling to lock in with the odd cadences of the piece:

In fact, it’s the sense of struggle that I find most appealing about this performance.  The voicings he selected for the arrangement also have a mundane quality that I think befits the piece.  If there’s one flaw, it would be the heavy handed use of artificial reverb on the recording, which I think obscures rather than flatters some of the details of John’s performance.  Nonetheless, I find it encouraging that this revered guitar player, who has accomplished so much with the instrument, was willing to venture into potentially uncomfortable musical territory to expand his boundaries, if even only slightly.  While this article focused only on one track, Palermo Snow is a certainly multi-faceted album worthy of celebration by guitar music fans.

¹ Renbourn’s arrangement is of Satie’s “Sarabande No. 1”
² from Piano Music of Erik Satie (Remastered, 2011)
³ from Der Vollkommene Capellmeister (1739)

Review : Nick Jonah Davis “Of Time And Tides” LP/CD (Tompkins Square, 2011)

NJD - sleeveTompkins Square has had a few homerun records in the last year… William Tyler’s spellbinding Behold The Spirit, and the Beyond Berkeley Guitar compilation would be indispensable acoustic guitar albums in just about any era, but are definite standouts in today’s fuzzy, post-everything musical landscape. The label’s winning streak quietly continues with Nick Jonah Davis’ proper debut, Of Time And Tides.

Davis, though young, is not a completely new name on the underground acoustic scene. The Nottingham-based guitarist was featured on Imaginational Anthem Volume 4, and also had a digital release called Guitar Music Volume 1, both distributed by Tompkins Square. His playing on those records, though competent, was more or less indistinguishable from any of the other Fahey-channeling pickers of recent years, on either side of the pond. On his new album, though, Davis shows a fast-maturing compositional sense, and a welcome willingness to subtly expand on Fahey’s oft-imitated American Primitive style… and though there are a number of American sounding, boom-chick tunes here (such as the short and sweet title track) I feel that Davis more and more is letting his Englishness shine through… always a good thing! Continue reading

Review : Vin Du Select Qualitite “Solo Acoustic” LP Series (2010/2011, VDSQ Records)

VDSQ-OneI recently became aware of an intriguing new series of limited-edition LPs by a California label called Vin Du Select Qualitite. The Solo Acoustic series features a few marquee names (Thurston Moore and Chris Brokaw are probably the most well known) as well as some up and coming pickers. Many of these recordings aren’t strictly acoustic, with several of the players employing delay and looping effects, pickups et al, and the liberal overdubbage in evidence can sometimes stretch the term “solo” pretty thin… but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The packaging of these albums is consistent and simple: each disc features a white sleeve with a single-color, guitar related photo. The spartan design sense and the limited availability of these records are reminiscent of many of the privately pressed guitar albums of the ‘60s and ‘70s. In this article, I’ll give short reviews of the first six VDSQ LPs, some of which are already selling out of their initial runs. If you’re interested in any of these releases, I encourage you to act fast… these have “collector’s item” written all over them! Continue reading

Review : E. Ryan Goodman “Halves” CD (Self Released, 2010)

halves_goodmanThere is a pervasive tenseness that roams among the 16 guitar instrumentals that make up E. Ryan Goodman’s Halves. The music, never joyful nor despondent, informs the listener that this inner struggle is a necessary and permanent one linked to the human experience. A distinct lack of melodic predictability and the often-wandering rhythms enhance the uneasy drift of these tracks. The music unfolds in no discernible pattern and like unwrapping a crumbled ball of paper, there are creases and folds throughout. Melodies collide atop one another, lines intersect at seemingly random moments, structures are askew and the aural landscape is distorted. The tunes here are slow-moving meditations that thread the needle between consonance and dissonance, the harmony of the music illicits neither smiles or sadness while remaining surprisingly pleasant to listen to.

The music approaches an evenness in tunes like the ironically titled “Melancholy Boogie” and “When Past is Present”, but these momentary states of grace are only diversions from the koan this album explores with an uncommon persistence. This isn’t to say that the musical statements Goodman seems to be making on this record are either confusing or unclear. The perpetual ambiguity of modality is not a set up for transcendental wizardry, as so many guitar mavens today attempt with blatant un-artistry, but seems more like an honest sojourn of one man and his instrument fumbling through a set of unfamiliar keys, trying to unlock the door of his own house. A card that Goodman plays with humble effectiveness is that many of the tracks here show a good amount of humor, and it is this self-removed perspective that renders the entire work with honesty and humility. This is not a guy who takes himself too seriously, though he approaches the work with dedication. One listen to “Through Bramble”, a defiant and out of tune arpeggiated workout, proves that there are more dimensions to be found in the guitar beyond the stoic and reverent.

In many ways, the record is an inner-facing struggle to reconcile some unspoken problem, a spiritual dilemma never stated to the listener. Each track begins at the moment when some imponderable question is volleyed into the void without preamble, and ends gracefully without an epilogue. It is this bare-bones composition technique that is so appealing on Halves. What we witness is pure process at work, the churning gyrations of the mind as it solves problems, searches for equilibrium and ultimately accepts the impossibility of finality or definition. What sets this album above many contemporary six string auteurs is that it feels like an authentic effort to dig into new, personal territory for the artist and not simply an effort to mystify and buffalo an uncritical listener.

Buy this limited edition CD from E. Ryan Goodman