TNAG Notes: What Defines Expensive, Happy 80th Wizz Jones, The Chris Thile Appreciation Society
The climate may be all over the place, the political situation a mess on both sides of the Atlantic but there’s one thing you can always rely on in these uncertain times. Yes…it’s your fifth, fun-filled, fortnightly feast of fretboard frippery and fingerstyle frolics (that’s enough Fs! - Ed.) This time out we get shamelessly subjective with regard to classic acoustic/instrumental albums, explore the meaning of ‘expensive’ courtesy of the Romantic poets and tip the TNAG titfer to a true legend of the folk/blues revival. As follows…
IT COSTS HOW MUCH!?!…
So how much is too much? What defines “expensive” in 2019? Robert Browning suggested that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” He might have included women, had he been writing for a more enlightened audience, but that would have played havoc with the poetic meter. Old Bob had a point; though whether he was focused on the spiritual, as opposed to the material (guitars, for example) is open to debate. Thus, while we may plan to go out and buy the best guitar we can afford, we always seem to end up coming home with the best guitar we can’t afford but bought, anyway. This is what philosophers describe as the Human Tragedy. Or comedy.
Also, those two warring siblings, Price and Value, are rarely photographed together. Their strained relationship has proved too embarrassing over the years. So, on the few happy occasions when they do meet, it’s a cause not just for celebration but for getting the wallet out, quick, before they vanish altogether.
Expensive, then, is a relative term so with that in mind let’s set aside any abstraction for a moment. In 1935, the average annual income in the US was around $475. A Martin D28 would’ve set you back $100; more than 20% of your pre-tax yearly earnings. By the time the 50s came around, income had increased threefold but so had the cost of your dream D28. These days, because Martin offer so many variations on the model, a D28 might clock in anywhere between four and ten thousand dollars; a figure roughly in the middle of which – say seven thousand - would constitute roughly 10% of the current US average annual income. QED, a D28 is cheaper, in relative terms, than its ever been. And those figures translate pretty evenly from dollars to pounds sterling.
One might hazard a wild guess that a fair few TNAG customers pull in a yearly wedge somewhat higher than the UK national average (£25-30,000). That being the case, suddenly, that two-grand guitar starts to look like a bargain - and your much-coveted, hand-made beauty, at ten, doesn’t seem such an outrageous proposition after all.
There’s something vaguely reassuring in the notion that the old adage, “you get what you pay for” still holds true. Our guitarist forebears had to work and save to realise their dreams – it made that long-awaited moment of purchase all the more special. Why should we be any different?
SOMETHING’S HAPPENING! SO CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE (TO YOU…MR. JONES)
Apologies to Bob Dylan for the labored line-mangling (above) but some occasions shouldn’t be allowed to pass by without a Big Shout. Back in the Dark Ages, when there was no TNAG and not even much of a Denmark Street, young Raymond “Wizz” Jones of Thornton Heath, a music-obsessed Croydon kid saddling with post-war rationing and a Beano-character nickname, was dreaming of being Jack Kerouac, out there on the road, or Woody Guthrie, playing for fruit-pickers round a California campfire. On Wednesday 24th April, Jones celebrates his 80th birthday, at London’s Cadogan Hall, as possibly the last of the great acoustic pioneers of the UK folk/blues revival. Bert Jansch described him as “the most underrated guitarist ever" and the star-studded list of those he’s inspired since his late-50s breakthrough is a mile long. Rockers, folkies and bluesmen alike cite Jones as a major influence; Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Keith Richards, John Renbourn, Ralph McTell, Steve Tilston, Clive Palmer and more. Not least, Bruce Springsteen, who opened his “Wrecking Ball” tour in Germany with Wizz’s, “When I Leave Berlin”. All would make special mention of the metronomic, piston right-hand that still brings to mind the steel-hammer pulsing rhythm of the mighty Big Bill Broonzy.
At his upcoming 80th ‘do’, Wizz will be sharing the stage with a raft of acoustic luminaries; not just the aforementioned McTell and Tilston but friend-of-TNAG Clive Carroll and many more. A few surprise appearances are expected and, looking at Wizz’s fan-base, that promises something extra special. All of which looks like a fabulous tribute, then, to a true, albeit underrated, giant of the acoustic guitar. And yet there’s more; the stuff that all too often gets taken for granted.
From wearing out the Dansette (and the vinyl) listening to Big Bill and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot before taking to the busker/hippy trail via the coffee bars of Soho and on to Paris and Marrakech, Jones provided for a generation of new players the same kind of romanticized vision of a life in music that he’d been inspired by, himself, in the late 50s. Like those other storied troubadours of the era; Donovan, Leonard Cohen, Dylan himself, Wizz Jones is one of the reasons so many of us picked up guitars in the first place. He helped bring the American roots-music we still listen to into British households. He helped generate the demand for steel-string, acoustic guitars that fueled the folk/blues revival that then morphed, via the Stones, Yardbirds, Animals et al, into full-on rock. He helped lay the ground for the whole Denmark Street legend and, yes, without all that…would there even be a TNAG? So, all the best to you, Wizz. A real ‘Guitar Hero’. Happy Birthday.
…is there anyone on the contemporary acoustic scene making more enjoyable and wide-ranging music - at the very highest level – than Chris Thile? It’s as though the mandolin genius never sleeps; whether he’s leading Punch Brothers, exploring new solo territory or hosting the wonderful, “Live From Here” on radio (and film). The musicianship is consistently astonishing and his contribution to the performances of live guests from household names like Paul Simon to lesser-known but no-less-brilliant performers like Jon Batiste is invariably joyful, tasteful and ultra-committed. As good as it gets on every level.
An honourable mention, too, for Molly Tuttle who can more than handle her current ‘flavour of the month’ status, partly because she really does sound like two people playing at once. Much of that is down to incredibly fluid right-hand/wrist movement but she’s got a great voice, as well. Check out her YouTube version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues” and be pleasantly amazed.
THIS FORTNIGHT’S FAB FIVE (WITH A TWIST)…
There are quite a few top, contemporary acoustic guitarists out there who’ll freely admit that a full-length album of instrumentals is a pretty hard sell. How many of us have CDs by great players that we’ve narrowed down to, maybe, a couple of tracks; the beautifully melodic one and the ‘impress your friends’ one we’re still trying to master. How many all-acoustic albums do we still pluck out of the rack and play all the way through? It’s arguable that very few – very few - have stood the test of time to still carry that same “sit down and stop what you’re doing” thrill they delivered on first hearing. For the sake of argument (!) we’re swerving all things classical, Bluegrass or Django-related – these belonging, we hereby declare, to categories of their own. So...for your consideration…
1. “Aerial Boundaries” (1984) by Michael Hedges changed the landscape for solo fingerstyle guitarists with the introduction of techniques and tunings that painted an entirely new soundscape. While many – some would suggest too many - have tried to harness the rippling avalanche of notes and plate-spinning, rhythmic pyrotechnics, few have come close to the dazzling, virtuosic Hedges standard.
2. “Friday Night In San Francisco” (1981) by John McLaughlin, Al di Meola and Paco de Lucia was the acoustic album rock and jazz-fusion fans had been waiting for – whether they knew it or not. For sheer verve, dynamism, energy (and cracking tunes) it remains unsurpassed to this day.
3. “6 and 12-String Guitar” (1969) by Leo Kottke could well be the most influential acoustic-instrumental album of the fifty years since its release. It’s loose, melodic, technically mind-boggling and above all…fun. There’s a bouncing, dancing swagger to these tunes that never seems to tire.
4. “Beyond the Missouri Sky” (1996) by Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden is the most mellow selection here. The playing is sublime throughout; relaxed, warm and seemingly effortless. The choice of tunes is perfectly balanced and, as ever, Haden is the ideal, sympathetic accompanist. Pure class.
5. Rodrigo Y Gabriela (2006) might be a bit close, stylistically, to our #2 selection but the irrepressible flash and thrilling, cat-and-mouse interplay seems endlessly inventive here on a breakthrough album executed, from start to finish, with a wit and style that’s nigh on impossible to resist.
Did we say subjective? Absolutely. Isn’t that what lists are for? And if you’re outraged by the omission of your personal all-time favourite, in the words of the great Peter Green…”Oh, well”.
by Stephen Bennett