David Hidalgo, Mato Nanji and Luther Dickinson – 3 Skulls And The Truth (2012)

There is a now annual series of shows in the USA under the name “Experience Hendrix” in which contemporary guitar heroes (and maybe heroes from a couple of generations back) play homage to a man who left a big imprint on rock guitar playing. A side benefit of this sort of show with lots of guest players is that guys who may be aware of each other, admire each other’s work but are too busy with their own gigs to pay each other serious attention may be put in touch with each other. So it was a few years back when Hidalgo, Dickinson and Nanji all ended up on the same stage together through their participation in an Experience Hendrix show. They decided to work together on their own collaborative project in the future, and the fruits of all of this is 3 Skulls And The Truth (and I’m not being lazy or sloppy, that’s what it says on the CD cover).

The ghost of Hendrix is still hanging around, but then Hendrix cast a long shadow and as time goes by the reach of his influence becomes ever more apparent. Sometimes this record sounds like Hendrix, other times it brings to mind. Robin Trower, Stevie Ray Vaughan or even Lenny Kravitz or Robin Trower – which is to say it sounds a lot like Hendrix. But not in an imitative way, but more like “inspired by” or “rubbed off on…”.

The guitar playing is very much the thing. The songs are guitar tunes, compositions that lend themselves to crunching riffs or an electric solo or two. Or three. And boy there is a lot of soloing on this record, and boy it is really, really good.

Hidalgo’s reputation has often sometimes outshone his performance, but here there’s no room for doubt as he plays with great fire and freedom. Dickinson has cut his own reputation as a guitarist in recent years – mostly with the Black Crowes or his own North Mississippi Allstars. Manji is the least widely known of this threesome, but fame and skills dont correlate much skills and he’s no less impressive.

The most obvious Hendrix borrowing is the inventivness and fluidity of the soloing. All three deliver repeatedly. If ZZ Top or Stevie Ray are your idea of a guitar good time then you’ll want to get this. If (like the blogger) you enjoy a high quality electric guitar racket as much at the next man but want to be a bit more elitist about things you can have just as much fun.

This in many ways NOT a groundbreaking record. It is short on innovation and artistic ambition, but is long on energy, rhythm and butt-kicking guitar playing.

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Jeff Beck – Blow By Blow (1975) and Wired (1976)

By 1975 Jeff Beck was by some distance the least commercially successful of the trio of guitar heroes to have cut their teeth in the Yardbirds – the other two being Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. After the power trio Beck, Bogert and Appice had not lived up to expectations, and possibly fed up with singers who kept on leaving his band for other gigs (Bobby Tench and, more notably, Rod Stewart) he went into George Martin’s AIR studio to cut a purely instrumental album – a risky proposition for a rock player in the mid 70s.

The resulting Blow by Blow was a commercial and critical triumph and still is Beck’s best-selling album. He followed up a year or so later with another album in the same broad vein, again with George Martin producing. These are the two albums that put Beck firmly back on the map, and on which much of his considerable reputation as an ace guitarist rests.

Blow by Blow is the more…. organic of the pair. Beck took a small band of crack session players into the studio with him – Max Middleton (veteran of previous Beck projects and later a key member of Chris Rea’s band) on keyboards, Phil Chen (later a member of Rod Stewart’s band) on bass and Richard Bailey on drums – and they all click to deliver a superb ensemble performance. The engineer is frequent Martin sidekick and plain all-time-great Geoff Emerick and the recording sounds fabulous – spacious but also full of detail.

Beck has often seemed to want for good material, but here the selections are good with strong melodies and hooks. Stevie Wonder’s “‘Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” is a stand out with Beck building up gradually to a solo rich with chops and fascination (so much more satisfying than the later live clips you can find on YouTube on which he jumps too quickly into balls-to-the-wall soloing). He even makes tasteful use of a talk box, which makes sense in this context because there’s often a very vocal quality to his guitar parts.

Middleton is consistently excellent with parts that often surprise and fit at the same time. His composition “Scatterbrain” is another standout with Beck and the band playing with great attitude on the ensemble passages strong solos (including Middleton himself), a kickass performance from Bailey and Martin’s string arrangement soaring alongside the solos. Throughout the album Beck hooks the listener with clever hooks and a frequent off-hand attitude that makes it sound like he’s casually tossing great fills and licks away.

He wasn’t though. Martin tells the tale of how Beck couldn’t stop tinkering with the recording, repeatedly re-recording parts. It says something for Beck and Martin that so little sounds forced. The tale ends with Beck calling Martin to arrange still more revisions only to be told that the record was in the shops.

Next year’s Wired saw Beck lean further toward the world of jazz fusion with Mahavishnu Orchestra alumni Jan Hammer and Narada Michael Walden bought on board. (Walden is best known as a producer of over-egged pop hits, but here he shows his excellence behind the drum kit). It’s a more aggressive affair with the studio players (Middleton is retained and Bailey plays on two tracks) playing with notable attack and energy and Beck rising to the challenge and turning up another notch from the very high standard he’d set on the previous album.

But the record also lacks the soulfulness and unified feel of it’s predecessor, and Beck choses a lesser set of tunes. Too often the sound is a riff (admittedly a funky, hook-laden riff as on the Walden composition “Come Dancing”) with solos layered on top, so there’s less melodic interest.

The solos however are exceptional even by Beck’s standards. Students of rock guitar will want to pay attention, there are some very hot guitar parts here. If you study bass or drums then the record is just as impressive. Hammer, whose synth solos are often guitar-like, seems to spur Beck on to increasing heights.

This pair of albums represent Beck’s commercial and artistic high water mark. His technical gifts never waned, but subsequent albums seemed to miss the strengths that Beck and Martin had identified and put so sharply in focus.

PS: There is a small annoyance with Blow by Blow in digital format. The album was created so that the tracks flowed or cross-faded into each other. With the discrete files of the digital album the effect is spoiled.

Bombino – Agadez (2011)

One of the most vital, exciting electric guitar scenes is in…. well it’s not bound to a state but to an itinerant people who have been caught up in various civil wars over the last few years, the Tuareg of North West Africa.

The first widely heard intimations that something was brewing in that neck of the woods (sands?) was Ali Fakar Toure’s Grammy winning collaboration with Ry Cooder Talking Timbuktu. Then in 2001 Tinariwen were “discovered” at a festival in Mali, despite having been performing since 1979. Their records, and especially Aman Iman put what is now called “desert blues” (the Tuareg simply call it “guitar”) more vividly on the map.

But these two most famous examples are not the only exciting guitar acts to emerge from the sands of northern Africa, though periodic wars and harassments have made it difficult for these people to perform and market their music. Bombino journeyed to the USA in 2006, but in 2007 he found himself caught up the Tuareg rebellion. He was back in 2009 to start recording what would become Agadez, but eventually the project was finished in Niger after the government and the rebels agreed a truce. As part of the peace celebrations Bombino, whose music had been banned by the government, played a concert outside the mosque in his hometown of Agadez.

As a youngster he paid careful attention to videos of Dire Straits and Jimi Hendrix, and he is more of an obvious guitar hero than some of the older acts operating in this genre. His electric guitar sound is biting but essentially clean. The power comes from his note choices and rhythmic instincts. His music is typical of the genre in that he often eschews the drums of rock and relies on homespun percussion (mostly djembe and hand claps), and he makes extensive use of drones which often confers a trance-like quality on proceedings – “Tigrawahi Tikma” and the opening “Ahoulaguine Akaline” are examples here.

The songs are in his mother tongue Tamashek. You can find translations on line. The lyrics are simplistic romantic or patriotic pieces. The real interest for us here in the west is the guitar work and the cunning rhythms. Only a minority of songs are in the common time that dominates Western popular music. Sometimes Bombino and his rhythm section play poly-rhythmic games that add to the elusive and dreamlike nature of the music. Listen to the way they appear to slowly shift from one time signature to another on “Iyat Idounia Ayasahen” (they don’t really. It’s an illusion, but a well executed illusion can be taken for reality). That track (which sounds live) also features a terrific electric guitar work out.

“Tar Hani” leans on the flat third a lot, features another prolonged (but not too long) solo and is funkier. “Kammou Taliat” is built around a thrilling, surging electric guitar figure. The closer “Tebsakh Dalet” is a good example of the mellower, acoustic songs that add contrast.

Now the big question (it often comes up when Tuareg guitar music is discussed): Is this the music that migrated (under pressure) to the USA and became the blues? Well of course it isn’t – Bombino (and Tinariwen) spent a lot of time absorbing Western guitar heroes. But probably there’s a common ancestry. The blues (and thus the rock ‘n roll that derived from it) isn’t the same music that those slaves took to the Americas with them (it’s barely what it was in the 1940s) but grew from that music, adapting and changing as it did so. And the same has happened here but for different reasons and in different directions. If you want to really muse on this you end up with an intriguing proposition of this ancient music forcibly migrating to the new world, morphing into contemporary rock and pop and then travelling back home on tape and CD to force changes in the original music.*

Or course you don’t have to pay any attention to the recent history of the Tuareg, or to the musicological theories. You don’t need the extra context to enjoy this exciting, vital music.

* Some musicologists suggest that nearly all Western European music, and everything that has spun off from that, can be traced back to North Africa via the Moorish influx into Europe in the first millenium AD. The rope is tangled and turns back upon itself.

Laurie Levine – Border Crossing (2013)

Laurie Levine is a Johannesburg-based songwriter, musicologist and performer who has produced an increasingly impressive sequence of albums. The big step forward was 2011’s Six Winters with a well judged production by Dan Roberts. Levine and Roberts teamed up again for Border Crossing but didn’t rest on their laurels.

Stylistically the album is still set in the American south. But that’s a big place with a rich musical tradition. The last album was strongly folk and country, but here things lean more in the direction of soul and gospel. Laurie Goes To Memphis? A mention in dispatches is due here to the rhythm pairing of Tebogo Sedumede and Justin Badenhorst who lay down compelling, kinetic soul grooves.The rest of the studio players (including Sez Adamson, surely South Africa’s best kept guitaring secret) are all strong and Roberts coaxes marvellously apt performances from them. If you’re disillusioned by the apparent state of South African pop and/or rock then get your hands (and ears) on a copy of Border Crossing. The playing, songs and production give nothing away to albums from the USA with a similar musical setting.

Lyrically we’re in more familiar (for Levine) territory. Relationships can be complicated and scary, but they can also be fun, beautiful and thrilling. The jump across the divides into shared space and onto an open road is the “Border Crossing”.

Levine’s own performance, the songs and the playing all come together to most satisfying effect. “You’re stealing my love”, she sings at one point, “and I want to be poor.” At iTunes prices (and iTunes pays a fair share to the artist) you’ll be no poorer for buying this high quality album.

The Beatles – Revolver (1966)

Nearly 50 years on the significance and the impact of this album is easily overlooked. In real time it was a leap forward in recording and was made at a time when the Beatles were becoming disillusioned with touring and thus less concerned with creating music they could recreate on stage.

We can miss all of that now, and in any case the Fab Four’s next album would cast a long shadow on nearly everything that had gone before (from the Beatles or from anybody else). But there’s still much to enjoy here and right now.

Before the Beatles were the kings pf psychedelia they were a great rock ‘n roll band, and that still shines through in guitar driven rockers like “And Your Bird Can Sing ” (which sounds strikingly current) and the album opener, George’s “Taxman”. They had great vocals too, with two great lead singers and immaculate, rich harmonies. They had a great instinct for melody. They were craftsmen and artists, with their increasingly adventurous creative urge always underpinned by solid musicianship

John’s sonic experimentation was important and impressive at the time and would culminate in the track that dominated that dominant next album (which I am studiously avoiding mentioning by name), but it’s Paul that shines here with a clutch of strong songs. ” Eleanor Rigby” eschews drums, guitars and everything else that is rock ‘n roll and brilliantly packs it’s story into three verses. “Good Day Sunshine” has a soaring chorus with those trademark harmonies and clever syncopations that create an illusion of shifting time signatures. “Got To Get You Into My Life” is alleged to be a love song to marijuana but also works just as well as a conventional love song and as Paul’s tribute to Motown. Best of all (which is considerable in this context) is “For No One” with a stripped down arrangement that allows the lyric and another great Paul melody to shine through. Oh… and one of the best George guitar solos on a Beatles record (on “Taxman”) turns out to be a Paul solo.

John’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a landmark in recording with it’s heavily processed vocals and looped drum track. It’s built around a drone note and features striking tape loop effects (what would be samples today, but perhaps more interesting). This track kicked down any doors that still stood beteeen popular music and the counter culture and it still impresses now.

George’s “Love You Too” was another track that had nothing to do with conventional rock instrumentation, but here we get Hindustani instrumentation rather than orchestral strings. It’s an early example of what would eventually be called World Music.

What may surprise the unsuspecting contemporary listener is the breadth of style on one record (a vinyl record, significantly shorter than the modern CD). But much of it doesn’t sound that dated now, partly due to the efforts of engineer Geoff Emerick (at the start of what would be a glittering career) and producer (and “fifth Beatle”) George Martin, but also because the material is so strong. There’s not a lot to beat a good song, and the Beatles had plenty of those.