TNAG Notes #25 by Stephen Bennett
“You have a whole collection of musical ideas and thoughts that you’ve accumulated through your musical history plus all the musical history of the whole world and it’s all in your subconscious and you draw upon it when you play.” (Joe Pass). So, get on with it.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Wood (with apologies to any notable Carvers)
On occasion, I find myself in the company of a group of people who like to describe themselves as belonging to ‘the Art World’. Don’t ask. We all have aspects of our lives we’re not proud of. Anyway, for all the flowery intellectual discourse (pseudo or otherwise) they’re just a set of loveable bores who isolate themselves from ‘all the rest’ by the arcane and Byzantine rules of engagement exclusive their little private club. We guitar-lovers, of course, in the words of the immortal Molesworth, disdain them, these pretentious poseurs with their ‘dazzling chiaroscuro’ and their ‘deep relevance’ in art-splaining whatever zeitgeist no one else gives a toss about. Funny how the root of the word ‘sophisticated’ implies conning people. But we digress…
At which point, the sudden screech of a rusty, under-used handbrake interrupts our righteous pronouncements. If that lot are boring…where does that leave us? We talk about planks. We agonise over how best to wind a wire coil. We ponder the sonic possibilities of lacquer. Boring? We’re off the scale. Michael Palin once invented a character who liked to regale people with all the finer details of his spectacularly dull existence – ‘he bought a new shovel and…you know what he did…he put it next to his old shovel’. We guitar nerds make that guy sound like Jim Carrey explaining human reproduction to aliens. We obsess about the minutiae of wood. We are beyond either hope or redemption – and we love it.
Fortunately, as ever, help is at hand – therapy, if you will, whether you want it or not – by way of your handy TNAG Guide to Sounding Less Boring Than You Really Are. One day, reader, you will thank us for saving any number of your floundering relationships.
So, let’s start with spruce. Never mind the resonant properties, all that ‘fast-response’ and ‘fine-grain’ nonsense. Instead, your opening conversational gambit will go something like this…’Did you know that the Alaskan city of Sitka, which gives the tree its name, was part of Russia until 1867 and still has an onion-domed Orthodox Cathedral? It’s on Baranof Island, which the Russians pinched from the indigenous Tlingit people, and earns most of its annual income from…(yes…just catching yourself in the nick of time, here)…fishing. Its current most significant claim to fame is that it’s bloody chilly.’ Now you try it.
Moon spruce, of course, contrary to the popular belief that it is harvested under a full moon in the Alpine regions of Europe by traditional methods that carefully observe specific cutting techniques and monitoring precise levels of sap and moisture, does, in fact, come from the Moon.
Brook no argument. Make stuff up. It will, rest assured, be more interesting than that deathly-dull incumbrance, the truth. That’s why ‘bear claw’ is actually spruce that was wrestled from the grip of an irate Grizzly (for no other reason beyond your need to ponder at great length whether it looks ultra-cool or, in fact, just a bit dodgy). Hence the expense.
Rosewood (forget the guitar stuff) got its name because it smells like roses. That IS true. But it’s more than likely it’s never come up in our profound ‘Brazilian versus Indian’ debates.
On the cedar front, tiny Port Orford, Oregon, is the western-most ‘incorporated’ settlement in the forty-eight contiguous United States – which surely knocks all that highly-prized, sunken, preserved log blather right out of the park, interest-wise. Possibly. And that lovely blue cedar originated in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco which, guaranteed, sounds a lot better across a candlelit dinner-table than anything about more-mellow guitar tops. What’s more, Western red cedar isn’t even real cedar, despite its outrageous claims to the name.
And there’s more! Lots more. But that’s enough excitement for now. You are hereby equipped to emerge once more into the (real) world, reborn as one - if not quite Vaguely Interesting - then no longer Utterly and Hopelessly Intolerable.
HEROES? CERTAINLY NOT JUST FOR ONE DAY.
Lo, these many years ago (about ten, to be imprecise), I’d never written a word about music - at least, not for public consumption – nor had I any intention or wish to do so. Until, one fateful day, I found myself stirred into whatever the state one-above lethargy is, by an album review in an august and late-lamented publication which, for all you literary-puzzle fans out there, bore a title that rhymes with ‘A Pooh Stick’. Said review was for a ‘Best of…’ release by one of the UK’s most significant ‘under the radar’ artists of the last forty-odd years; Clive Gregson. And if that name is new to you, bear with me. The reviewer suggested that the artist had no right releasing a CD trumpeting an outstanding selection from a vast body of work as…wait for it…the reviewer had never heard any of it before. Nor was the name familiar. Gregson? How dare this fellow presume…followed by further tripe of a similar nature.
So, I did something I’d never done before and have never done since. I wrote to the editor in an extended rant, basically, on the damaging nature and consequences of lazy journalism. This was back when I had principles. By way of response, the editor sent me an enormous padded envelope containing twelve CDs of new music with brief instructions along the lines of, “Right, smart-arse, sort this lot out, then.” I proceeded to do so – and with other lots - for quite some time. A cautionary tale, I suppose - though aimed at which party, I’m still not sure.
The basis of my Clive Gregson argument was that there are a handful of singer-songwriters, ‘out there’, each probably gigging somewhere this very night, who have produced, consistently, inspired and inspiring work that has underpinned the British acoustic music scene for well over half a lifetime. And if they’re not currently appearing in a folk club or civic hall near you - in Perth or Penzance, Wigan or Workington - somebody else will be making up for it by playing one of their songs.
We all have our own favourite artists we genuinely believe should be household names: Chris Wood, Blair Dunlop, Boo Hewerdine, Bella Hardy, perhaps. We’re all equally baffled when some poor, benighted soul glazes over dramatically and says, “Sorry…who?”
Aside from being listed in ‘Guitar’ magazine’s “1,000 Greatest”, Clive Gregson is a songwriter of genius. He wrote the madly-modulating masterpiece, “I Love This Town”, that became Nancy Griffith’s biggest hit in the US. He wrote “Fred Astaire”, so memorably later interpreted by Norma Waterstone, and led the post-punk, pop-classicists Any Trouble to way more than mere cult status. Most notably, perhaps, and for a number of years, Clive anchored what is still, arguably, Richard Thompson’s finest ever live band - certainly his most fondly-remembered. A giant, then. A true stalwart. Both. Though ‘giant stalwart’ sounds more like something from the pages of a Victorian medical dictionary, you get the point.
There’s no big noise attached, no stuck-on superficial glamour, no sudden blinding fame-flash or gaudy spectacle. It’s just about the music, week in, week out. Writing, performing and - per E.M. Forster’s indefinable essential - connecting. It’s impossible to measure how many lives have been enriched by all those songs; words and tunes that just seem to have always been there, if not on a friend’s record player then half-remembered from a folk-night cover-version in a crowded pub you once wandered into and have missed ever since.
Clive’s calling time on all that touring lark at the end of this year. To make up for it, he’s releasing an album of new material every month covering a variety of styles and formats via his website, iTunes and all those other ‘down-with-the-kids’ platforms. The first set consists of twelve tracks relating to each month of the year. It’s a gem, as you’d expect. As you may have long taken for granted. And if Clive won’t be playing these new songs live for much longer, it’s a good bet someone else will be. So many people talk about ‘the music business’; the people who are really in it, the people who prop it up, keep it going, feed and nurture it, just talk about ‘the music’. We should remember to celebrate them far more than we do. Cheers, Clive.
And yes…it’s back! This Fortnight’s Fab Five…
Speaking of great guitarists you may never have heard of…check this lot out. Inevitably, many of the wizards of contemporary (electric) guitar gravitate to Nashville. We often forget that, for a fortunate, talented few, it’s about earning a living. And that’s where the work is. Here are a few who, should you take a few minutes to investigate their incredible doings on YouTube or other er…(consults earlier youth reference) platforms, you will surely feel obliged to delve further. You will encounter a number of mutant Telecasters as you go.
- Jack Pearson, though, is no Tele twanger. In fact, he seems to flirt with any number of body-shapes, makes and models. The results, regardless, are always astonishing. Not only does he come across as technically faultless – and maddeningly effortless – he’s got sublime, melodic taste when it comes to building a solo in just about any genre. Look him up. He’s worked with loads of top people and, if we didn’t love his playing so much, we’d have to kill him. He really is that good.
- Another Jack! Stratton, this time, of the frighteningly gifted, funk phenomenon, Vulfpeck. Any band that can sell out Madison Square Garden, without having either a manager or a record deal, must be worth a look. Have one. Be amazed.
- Sometimes you just have to think, “where do they find these guys?” You won’t need much more introduction to the brilliant Steve Kimock than a few sublime minutes of ‘Tongue n’ Groove’ from the acoustic “Last Danger of Frost” album. The electric stuff is spectacular, too, and live footage of The Voodoo Dead is the perfect place to start.
- And so, inevitably, to Nashville (the Hemel Hempstead of the US guitar world), home – or at least literal playground - of one J.D. Simo. Fronting his own bands or sitting in with straight-ahead, local country acts, there are certainly no prisoners taken here. Imagine a hillbilly Hendrix mainlining Red Bull doughnuts and you’ll get the sense of how much racket – and what kind – J.D. likes to make. Might get loud? Oh, it will.
- Finally, a Nashville name that’s surfaced here before but one you’ll rarely see on a headline; Brent Mason. Suffice to say he’s one of those infuriating genius-types who can play just about any style better than anyone who actually specialises in it – Western Swing, Jazz Manouche, Bluegrass, Samba, the lot. His ‘Strat Strut’ is pure, prime Steely Dan while ‘Hot Wired’ is, basically, what Telecasters are for.
See you next time! SB
by Stephen Bennett