Duck Baker has been a figure in the acoustic guitar scene since the 1970’s and The King of Bongo Bong, his third record on the Kicking Mule label, highlights his interest in swing, blues and folk guitar. Duck would, later in his career, delve as deeply into Celtic and other traditional styles as he does into 20’s-era swing guitar on this recording. The four-to-the-bar style is prominent on a number of these tracks, and as usual with Duck Baker, a nylon-string guitar is played throughout the album. Duck mixes his playing with both strummed-chord comping on the more upbeat numbers and fingerstyle on the more intricate tunes, oftentimes blending the two picking styles.
The album kicks off with “New Righteous Blues”, a Baker/Stefan Grossman duet which oddly introduces Duck’s playing as accompaniment to Grossman’s soloing over the track. Though some of Stefan’s lead lines are tasteful, his pentatonic leads packed with skillful string-bends, this ever-present soloing seems overpowering in its presence throughout the track. Duck’s admirably honest voice doesn’t quite command one’ s attention enough to make this a strong vocal piece, either, which makes it a diffused rag-blues workout. Blind Blake’s 1930 recording of this song is far more compelling in its buoyant rhythm and highly syncopated style, and Blake’s original falsetto on the answering lines is missed in this updated version. “Deep River” features another prominent lead guitar contribution by Grossman, who also produced this album. Continue reading →
Acoustic renaissance man Stefan Grossman has had a busy year, to say the least. He’s been doing his fair share of globe-trotting, with various concerts and workshops taking place in England, New Zealand, Japan and the US… including a high-profile appearance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Blues Festival outside of Chicago this summer. Somehow, Grossman has still managed to keep cranking out new CD and DVD releases via his Guitar Workshop, from blues and ragtime guitar instruction, to the latest installments in the Guitar Artistry DVD series, to a group of indispensable CD reissues of classic Kicking Mule albums. This new release schedule hasn’t been easy to stay on top of, but with such a wealth of acoustic guitar music to dig into, this writer certainly isn’t complaining! Continue reading →
Many acoustic guitarists probably have some degree of acquaintance with the work of John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman, but for the unfamiliar, allow me to offer up a short history : After cutting his teeth in clubs during the British folk and blues revival of the early 60’s, Renbourn recorded a series of classic solo albums on the Transatlantic label, and also began a fortuitous allience with Bert Jansch, resulting in their classic Bert and John duet album, and the influential folk-jazz group Pentangle. When that group initially dissolved (it would reform in assorted incarnations over the years, centering around singer Jacqui McShee… Renbourn would be an occasional participant), the guitarist delved ever-deeper into folk and blues forms, as well as jazz and ancient Medieval music. On LPs like The Hermit and The Black Balloon, Renbourn developed a sophisticated compositional style that, while complex, also overflowed with beauty and nuance.
Stefan Grossman started as a determined young blues devotee from New York City, studying under the tutelage of Reverend Gary Davis. Grossman himself quickly became something of a guitar guru… having a keen ear, and having learned first-hand from many of the original blues masters, Grossman began authoring instructional books aimed at disseminating classic American acoustic guitar styles, from country blues to ragtime. After a short stint at architecture school, he headed over to Europe, where he lived and worked for twenty years, starting the legendary Kicking Mule record label (alongside Takoma Records cofounder Ed Denson) which was instrumental in launching the careers of world-class guitarists like Duck Baker, Peter Finger, Dave Evans and Ton Van Bergeijk. Continue reading →
Constancy is one of the charms of the solo fingerstyle guitar category. In contrast to the rip-it-up-start-again ethos of musicians from various other genres, the notable fingerstyle guitarists have openly emulated earlier players while carefully making their own mark. Nonetheless, the category transforms, with resonant changes occurring when a particular player can effectively bring unique attitudes of his/her time to the story. So it was with British fingerstyle guitarist Dave Evans, his classic Kicking Mule album from 1974, Sad Pig Dance, re-issued this fall as an expanded CD collection by Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop.
At the outset of the 1970’s, Dave released The Words In Between and Elephantasia, both solid examples of singer-songwriter music from the period, with a few instrumental numbers added to the mix. “Ten Ton Tasha” and “Elephantasia,” from the latter, both feature whimsical, delay-treated overdubs sounding akin to progressive rock music, which was in its heyday at the time. I asked Stefan Grossman — producer of the Sad Pig Dance sessions, co-founder of Kicking Mule Records and tireless champion of Dave’s guitar playing — about the shift in emphasis from songs and multi-layered arrangements to unaccompanied guitar:
“Kicking Mule Records featured guitar solos and Dave had quite a few solo instrumentals he wanted to record. He and I wanted to present these as solos as the tunes were so interesting and did not need any other instruments to clutter up the melodies”
The incredible opening cut from Sad Pig Dance, “Stagefright” is one of Dave’s signature works. Aptly described by Grossman as a “tour de force in guitar playing,” it shifts through an array of moods in a short time (under four minutes). The introductory passage, a playful assemblage of hammer-ons and pull-offs, ushers in the Celtic-tinged verse, which is gradually subverted by increasingly chaotic runs before giving way to the triumphant, strummed passage and repeating in full. The performance of “Stagefright” featured on the Vestapol DVD Fingerstyle Guitar: New Dimensions & Explorations 2, is one of the most charismatic pieces of solo guitar footage I’ve seen:
My favorite cut from the album is “Morocco John.” This tune has an emotional, sketch-like quality that I find very moving. In the notes from the LP sleeve, Dave describes it thus:
“For John who rented a beautiful house overlooking the Atlantic for three pounds a month. I spent a week with him, living on chick pea soup, brown bread and olives. He taught me to play…”
Herein is another charm of the solo fingerstyle guitar (or any instrumental) category… its narrative power. As with “Morocco John,” a hint from the composer, embedded within the title or liner notes, can move the listener to imagine the narrative as the tune unfolds.
An excerpt from “Morocco John” by Dave Evans
In 1976, Kicking Mule released the follow-up to Sad Pig Dance, a mix of songs and instrumentals entitled Take a Bite out of Life. Stefan Grossman, who again served as producer for the sessions, recalls:
“When we came to the second album of his songs we tried to get other companies interested that focus on singer/songwriters as Kicking Mule certainly did not. But no other record company was interested so we decided to try our best on KM.”
As with Dave’s first recordings, there are some fine songs on Take a Bite out of Life. Still, its standout cuts are the four instrumentals (all of which appear as bonus tracks on the Sad Pig Dance CD reissue). I’m not sure it would be fair to characterize Dave as “the gifted guitarist who was compelled to sing,” though one might conclude it from studying the arc of his recording career, which effectively ended in the late 1970’s (Dave now lives as a potter in Belgium). Either way, in my mind, he was one of the rare players whose command of traditional material was virtually unmatched, yet also possessed the flair and imagination to weave elements of his time into the music, leaving the tradition richer.