Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Slide Guitar Sightings

I have always had an interest in virtuoso guitarists. A wonderful instrument, the guitar. An evolutionary extension of the lute family. Easy to learn the basics, easy to play at a perfectly functional level, and perhaps most important: a lot easier to carry than a piano. Like many other guys, I learned guitar to impress girls and enhance my opportunities to, ah, communicate.

Guitar players, like the music they perform, come in all flavors. French Gypsies like Django Reinhard; Flamenco virtuosos like Pepe Romero; acoustic masters like Leo Kottke; Classical legends like John Williams; country pickers like Sean Watkins; good old rock and rollers like Johnny Winter or Eric Clapton; and, Calcutta slide guitar pandits like V.M Bhatt.

I've been listening to a lot of great slide guitar lately, and that got me on a mad research rage through the net and my ever-growing collection of digital music. From my own collection, I dialed up a playlist of all of Tony Furtado's slide tunes. Being a resident of my own neighborhood, the Pacific Northwest, Furtado is a personal favorite. He's really known for his banjo, which people are forever comparing to Bella. Sure, they're both out-of-the-box but IMHO the similarity ends there.

I love Furtado for his slide, and his engaging, emotional tunes that are beautifully minimalist. Not an unnecessary note. Tight, without being sparse. As a bonus, Kelly Jo Phelps - himself an accomplished and celebrated slide player - adds his bluesy growl to several of Furtado's songs. What a great pairing. If you haven't heard Kelly Jo's version of "Goodnight Irene" on his own disc, Shine Eyed Mister Zen, check it out for a real treat.

Arlen Roth is an unsung institution. I should know. After years of serious guitar worship, I just found out about the guy. I'm humbled. He's awesome, and always has been. Raucous, Southern slide slamming - often at full speed - that's Arlen Roth. The guy can shift gears, however. His acoustic version of Layla is something special. We send him our love and celebrate his passage from considerable recent grief to a better place and his resultant new work. Dial-up Arlen Roth: When A Man Loves a Woman. Check it out.

Slide guitar players ply their trade across a variety of musical styles. Rock and Blues genres have always had a lion's share of the greatest slide players. Eric Clapton, Duane Alman, Eric Johnson, Johnny Winter, Robert Cray, and a personal favorite: Robben Ford. Alternative country bands also spotlight the slide.

Now here's the brain warp. My wife and I were at Quebec City's really wonderful Summer party, the Festival d'ete, a few years back listening to music all day at sites all over historic old-town. On the steps of the main, downtown station we stumbled on this Indian guy playing slide. Yea, uh huh. Still, stranger things have happened so we sat on a 400 year-old wall and listened. This guy, V.M. Bhatt, played a modified Gibson archtop acoustic that he had modified with 17 additional strings. That's right, 17. Bottom line, the instrument became more Sitar-like and better able to handle the complicated scales of classical Hidustani music. He played a lot of that, then launched into a lighting fast version of Orange Blossom Special. We were floored.

Right there and then I decided that Mr. Bhatt was the best slide played I had ever heard. Who'd thought? I've come to find out that there is an entire school of Calcutta Slide Guitar, and another master that deserves attention. Debashish Battacharaya. These players are technically gifted, as musicians of Indian Carnatic music must be to perform. True masters who studied under Pandits as novices for years of disciplined instruction. Their music pushes the limits.

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