Two summers ago, when this blog was a good bit more active than it is now, I thought I would swing for the fences and try to get an interview with Stefan Grossman, one of my all-time acoustic guitar heroes. Stefan wasn’t the first folkie, finger-picking guitarist that caught my ear… I had previously spent a good bit of time listening to Paul Simon, Nick Drake and Donovan. When my friend Michael turned me on to Bert Jansch, that was it. I was, and remain, an absolute fiend for British guitar music, a story that Stefan plays an appreciable part in. Continue reading
Well, I’ve had myself a very busy year thus far… lots of travelling, playing, recording etc and it has resulted in a shortage of new material here on Work & Worry. I’ve amassed quite a backlog of very worthy discs for review consideration, and now that I’m determined to get back on that journalistic horse, one release in particular looms larger than most: a triple-disc set of previously unheard recordings from one of the most important fingerstyle guitarists of all time, Davy Graham. Many consider Graham to be “ground zero” for the guitar-centric British folk and blues revival of the early sixties, and indeed it is hard to imagine that landscape without his influence. Legendary guitarists like Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Wizz Jones, and a host of others have expressed a debt of gratitude to the man who is widely considered to be the first known practitioner of DADGAD tuning, an innovation that has had a massive affect on not only solo acoustic guitar playing, but also the continuing evolution of traditional Irish and Scottish music… but Graham’s reputation is based on so much more, like his introduction of Baroque-inspired counterpoint on the folk guitar (“Anji” to this day is still considered a total game changer) and his expansive use of musical motifs from every possible source, from traditional British Isles tunes to American folk, blues and jazz, to mysterious modal compositions from the orient and beyond. Continue reading
Scottish folk musician Bert Jansch, a founding member of the band Pentangle and a well-known guitarist in his own right, has died at the age of 67. Jansch, who had cancer, passed away in the early hours of Wednesday morning at a hospice in Hampstead, north London.
Born in Glasgow in 1943, the musician recorded his first album in 1965 and his last, The Black Swan, in 2006. Between 1967 and 1973 he was part of acoustic group Pentangle, best known for their 1970 hit single “Light Flight”. John Renbourn, Jacqui McShee, Danny Thompson and Terry Cox were the other original members of the band, whose albums included Basket of Light and Solomon’s Seal. The group reformed in 2008 after receiving a lifetime achievement honour the previous year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. As a solo artist, Jansch received his own lifetime achievement accolade at the same event in 2001.
A scheduled solo show at the Edinburgh Festival later that month was cancelled due to the singer’s ill health. Speaking to The Guardian last year, Jansch – who is survived by his wife Loren – said he was “not one for showing off”. But he admitted that his guitar-playing “sticks out” – a skill that once prompted Neil Young to put him on the same level as Jimi Hendrix.
Booking agent John Barrow, who helped the musician stage shows throughout his career, said he would remember Jansch as a “hard-working musician” and “a great man”.
“He was very quietly spoken,” he told the BBC. “People used to say to me, ‘he doesn’t talk much, does he?’ But when he could play the guitar like that, why should he be talking?”
Rest in peace, Bert. We loved you very much.
Though my lovely wife Minette and I got married all the way back in May, we’ve both been pretty swamped with work ever since, and the idea of a decent honeymoon has been on the back-burner. Well, that all ended this week, as we filled up our tank and decided to take a scenic drive through the south! We didn’t do all that much pre-planning, figuring that we would just set up a few hotels along the way, and do whatever struck our fancy on any given day… but knowing that we were going to be spending a little time in both Asheville NC and Nashville TN, I made sure to have a few fine guitar stores on my mental list of places to visit, and they did not disappoint. WARNING : if you’re not interested in some pretty subjective ideas about sound and a lot of out-and-out minutia concerning some positively lovely acoustic guitars, you’ve probably already read too much… things are about to get long and geeky! I’ll also take this moment to point out that for every minute I spent looking at guitars, Minette probably spent five in thrift stores and boutiques shopping for unique and vintage articles of clothing… so everybody came away happy!
About twenty minutes outside of Asheville, nestled inconspicuously along a residential country road sits Dream Guitars, a unique appointment-only showroom and internet store owned and operated by Paul Heumiller. Paul started the company a while back with none other than world-renowned fingerstylist Martin Simpson, and both men know more than a little bit about fine acoustic guitars. There are few places in the world where so many unique hand-built and small shop guitars are available to play, and I tried my best to take it all in… though it wasn’t easy! In 90 minutes I played just a handful of instruments, each one just as beautiful as the last, and each with its own particular set of aesthetic and tonal strengths… and though I’ll admit it definitely feels a little haughty to pick apart any of these guitars, as a longtime fan of the instrument, I had no choice but to follow my ears, and these are some of my thoughts. Continue reading
Life 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
Earlier 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
I 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.