Tag Archives: James Blackshaw

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

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Review : TOMO “Butterfly Dream and Other Guitar Works” CD (Subvalent, 2010)

tomo-butterfly-dream-and-other-guitar-works-album-coverI was excited to receive Butterfly Dream and Other Guitar Works, the debut guitar album by Japanese multi-instrumentalist, TOMO.  This would be the first work by a Japanese player I’ve written about; I was curious to hear how TOMO’s technique and approach to composition might vary from his American and European counterparts.

That being said, TOMO is no stranger to American guitar traditions, having lived in Missouri during his teens, where he learned finger picking and absorbed a variety of pre-war musical styles.  He cites a long list of American guitarists and composers as influences, in addition to Medieval and Renaissance lutists, Hawaiian slack-key players, Middle Eastern and Indian instrumentalists, all of which are paid homage on Butterfly Dream. Continue reading

Review : M.Mucci “Time Lost” LP (The Tall House Recording Company, 2010)

by Raymond Morin

For avid fans of instrumental acoustic guitar music, there aren’t many real surprises anymore. These days, it’s hard to imagine a new player who could hit the scene and affect a seachange along the lines of, say, Davy Graham’s restless early experiments with Middle Eastern motifs, or John Fahey’s genre-spawning blues distillations. Even two of today’s most head-turning young instrumentalists, James Blackshaw and Kaki King, earned their reputations not by reinventing the wheel, but by designing their breakthrough recordings around the musical templates of Robbie Basho and Michael Hedges, respectively.

…and what’s wrong with that? After all, innovation isn’t everything. Indeed, when it comes to guitarists, it seems that those who decide to eschew tradition entirely tend to lean on gimmicks… more strings, more effects, atonality, more notes and played FASTER! All of those things can be great in small doses, but at the end of the day, when someone sits down behind a six (or twelve) string wooden box, I hope to hear something musical. It doesn’t have to be tricky, it doesn’t have to be fast, and it doesn’t have to be a revelation… give me a little soul, just the right amount of technique and some compositional flare, and you might very well have a fan for life! Continue reading

Review : Scott Witte “Sound Shadows” CD (Piggy Rooster Records, 2007)

Scott Witte Sound Shadowsby Raymond Morin

When I first encountered last year’s Wayfaring Strangers – Guitar Soli compilation by the excellent Numero Group reissue label, I’ll admit that a lot of it blew right past me. The disc is a collection of music by some lesser-known guitarists who had cropped up in the era between the establishment of the watershed Takoma Records and Windham Hill labels, the recordings dating from the end of the 60’s to the dawn of the 80’s. The tracks, generally speaking, tow the line between highly physical Fahey/Kottke pattern-picking and the more heady, “New Age” atmospherics of the Windham Hill sound, without really charging headlong into either style.

Today, many pickers from Detroit’s Nick Schillace and Philly’s Jack Rose, to Israel’s Yair Yona are finding their audience by keeping the Takoma sound alive and well, boom-chicking their hearts out with the same spartan spirit and intensity as John Fahey in his heyday. In parallel, world-wide interest in atmospheric and impressionistic acoustic and electro-acoustic music has never been stronger, and a healthy lineage of avant-garde-leaning musicians from David Grubbs to Chris Brokaw to James Blackshaw to David Daniell have torn down and rebuilt “New Age” (now “Ambient”) guitar music for a new generation.

The players featured on Guitar Soli, in their day, were operating in a similar, albeit more isolated environment. Without today’s mass communication tools, like the luxury of instantaneous access to virtually any and all recorded music via the web, it would seem natural for these players to drift toward one end of the spectrum or the other, riding the respective tides of enthusiasm for more traditional or more contemporary musical ideas… but we’re talking about guitar players here. Great guitar players do what they want, when they want, regardless of the tastes and trends of their time… and that’s a beautiful thing. The world of music is not black and white, and much of the thrill of discovery, for musician and fan alike, comes from mining the rich territory in between established norms. This “in between” guitar music takes a little extra time, a little bit of attentive listening before it really starts to shine, and then it’s well worth the effort… so it is with many of the players on Guitar Soli, and so it is with Scott Witte.

Scott is a Milwaukee-born guitarist, currently residing in Washington state. Scott remains a relatively unknown quantity in the world of fingerstyle guitar. He’s bound to gain some purchase with “Sailor’s Dream”, his standout track on the aforementioned Numero Group compilation, an animated little tune which owes no small debt to the playing of Leo Kottke. Witte’s debut album, also titled Sailor’s Dream and originally released in 1980, is still pending reissue, but fans of six and twelve-string acoustic guitar music would do well to seek out Sound Shadows, his 2007 collection of originals. Recorded between 2002 and 2007, Scott’s sophomore album sees the guitarist composing and performing with astute passion and creativity, picking up where “Sailor’s Dream” left off, but with an appreciable evolution of technique, harmony and song structure.

The album starts off with “Song of the Crow”, and an eye-roll inducing sample of, you guessed it, a loud crow “KAW!” My first instinct : “How much effort would it take for me to manually edit that out of the MP3 version, so I never have to hear it again?” All is forgiven, though, when Scott launches into the song itself, which is a finger-picking tour-de-force, and a great introduction to the elements of his style. A forlorn, minor-key meditation snowballs into a gorgeous set of guitar patterns, effortlessly moving back and forth between conventional and odd time signatures. It’s quite a trip, and sets the bar very high for the rest of the record.


Scott Witte – “Song of the Crow”
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“Time Enough” features some percussive fret-board whacking which segways into a 70’s-rock inspired strumming section. “Bounce” should appeal to fans of uplifting, major key picking motifs. “Sweet Reminisce” and “Land of the Setting Sun” are slow, minor-key dirges, and “Land…” contains some interesting techniques that you don’t hear very often, such as fretting the high string on the side of the neck to create high-pitched hammer-on effects, a la Davy Graham. The interwoven strumming, mournful basslines and unexpected chord changes also put me in mind of Peter Finger’s classic “Wishbone Ash”.

“One Last Time” is all joy and effervescence, the buoyant chord clusters being played in an unusual 7/8 pattern. It’s a real showcase for Mr. Witte’s clean right hand technique, but it also illustrates how he transcends the American Primitive style by thinking about the voice of the entire chord, rather than droning two or three notes and throwing down a simple repeating melody over the top.


Scott Witte – “One Last Time”
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At this point in an album, and with so much ground covered, one might start to worry about the well of ideas beginning to run dry… but Scott is just hitting his stride. Sound Shadows reaches it’s creative apex with “Inward Journey”, a composition that cycles through many movements, each more striking than the last. Much like James Blackshaw, one of the better-known modern-day purveyors of the long-form acoustic guitar song, Scott deftly picks his way through some gorgeous groups of chords, alternately accentuating notes in every register. That Mr. Witte is a virtuoso shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone at this point, bouncing back and forth between finger-rolls, time signatures and melodic snippets with the greatest of ease.

Genre-blurring acoustic guitarist Scott Witte

Genre-blurring acoustic guitarist Scott Witte

The album begins to wind down with “Walking On Air”, which revisits the sad, dirge-y mood of some of the earlier tunes. A short poem, “One Day Came a Crow”, reminds us of the loose concept of the album before closer “Prayer For Peace”, a very pretty pattern-picking invention in 5/8.

Though the few quirky “New Age” devices/trappings (the crow theme, the spoken word, etc.) at times threaten to cheese-up the proceedings (I know, right? Such a literate review and the best I could come up with was “cheese-up”), they prove minor distractions, relatively benign in the greater scheme of things. Sound Shadows is a serious, and seriously accomplished guitar album. The recording quality is very good indeed, the 12-string numbers featuring nice, thick close-micing, while the 6-string compositions benefit from the added sparkle of a little electric pickup mixed in. It is no small accomplishment that this group of songs, recorded intermittently over a five year period, are so of-a-piece… this collection could be sequenced any number of ways and would be no worse for the wear, a testament to Scott’s ability to keep things consistently varied and exciting. Though Scott Witte has been off the radar for some 28 years, with Sound Shadows he proves that he is not only in step with the current acoustic guitar scene, he also has the potential to be one of its leading lights.

Buy this CD from CD Baby
Check out Scott’s website