Saturday, February 11, 2006

Tommy Emmanuel Concert

Though this is by no means a review, I attended a concert in Fort Worth last night that’s worth at least a mention-and-a-half.

A buddy and I drove west to Bass Hall Friday night to check out a guitar virtuoso named Tommy Emmanuel, who, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t familiar at all with before the show. I basically agreed to go for the sake of getting out of the house more than anything else. I’m really glad I did.

First off, the show wasn’t exactly in Bass Hall, which is typically reserved for orchestras and members of the high-falootin’ set. It was next door in a Bass Hall annex building. That didn’t turn out to be an issue because the sound was good and our seats (general admission) were fine.

The show opened with a Canadian singer/songwriter named Tracy Rice. She’s got quite a voice and an earnest delivery, and writes a nice song, too. She’s clearly on the front end of her career so there’s not a whole lot of information out there about her. She has one independent CD called Out of the Light, which she sold herself at a table in the lobby before and after the show. She would be someone to watch out for if you’re into the Shawn Colvin or Kim Richey sound.

And then came Emmanuel. For those like me who aren’t familiar, Tommy Emmanuel is considered one of the greatest living guitar players in the world (really, it says so on his website!). The Australian Emmanuel is one of three people ever given Chet Atkins’ “Certified Guitar Player” status. Like the late Atkins, Emmanuel is a finger picker, which is sort of like playing a guitar like a piano. Each finger is doing something different. Strumming is not on the menu.

I am a total guitar hack. I don’t even know if “hack” is the correct term for what I am. I’m truly worse than that. But Emmanuel is a total freak. This guy does things on a guitar that I would never have thought to do. It was amazing. From playing three guitar parts at the same time to using his guitar as a percussive instrument, he completely blew the room away with his precision skill. It was so remarkable that after a while I found myself thinking, “Okay, I get it. He’s awesome. Can we go now?”

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. I really did and I’m glad I went. But, I suspect you have to be a total guitar geek to get really into it. And that’s really what I wanted to say. I recognize his proficiency and expertise with the instrument. But, there’s a point when it takes more than technical skill to hold my interest.

For me, the execution isn’t as important as the planning when it comes to music. Bob Dylan is my favorite example of this.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

CD Review: The Gourds - Heavy Ornamentals

Heavy Ornamentals, the eighth studio album from the legendary alt-country outfit the Gourds, is the perfect companion to standing over a smoky Weber with a cold one in hand on a hot Texas afternoon. The Gourds are the consummate thinking-man's party band, strutting lyrics bordering on the beautifully obtuse and strumming tunes catchy enough to incite a swamp riot.

Hailing from Austin, one of the great music cities in the country, the band’s left-of-center approach is lauded by critics and fans all along I-35. The Gourds ability to thrive in this environment for the past eight years is a testament to their appeal. It also doesn’t hurt to have great musicians and songwriters like Kevin Russell, Jimmy Smith and the "stringed assassin" Max Johnston (formerly of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco).

Gourds music is typically characterized by healthy jumbles of Texas country, Americana (non-Nashville country), zydeco, bluegrass, and punk. But I don't want that to scare off the uninitiated. Go to and check out some of the sound clips to get a feel for the band. Then come back here and continue reading.

You back? Good. As you might have guessed, I really like this record. I like it more than my favorite CD of 2005, Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s Come on Back.

Kevin Russell is truly a “twang master.” His vocals on “The Education Song” and “Our Patriarch” is greatness. His voice can not be overrated. Jimmy Smith comes through, too. Though vastly different from Russell, Smith brings a raw “rock & roll” sound to the table. Jimmy’s lyrics, though purported to be a little more serious on this record, can still be just plain absurd. Take “Collections Getting” as an example:

This here, the difficult third verse.
Jolly Joe drink his cappuccino.
Jolly Joe drink his cappuccino.
Jolly Joe drink his cappuccino.

It’s really hard to describe how much fun this album is to listen to. It appears that one of the most entertaining live bands in Austin has figured out how to transfer all the energy and spontaneity of a live performance into a recording. That’s rare.

I have a tip to share regarding getting the most out of the sound. This CD sounds much better when played on a traditional stereo than on a computer with headphones. The sound is much fuller when it has more to bounce off of than your eardrums. I used headphones the first few listens and wasn’t terribly impressed by the levels and mixing, but a $30 CD jambox in the backyard turned me completely around on that.

The one thing missing from this album are Max Johnston tracks. His tunes have become a welcome addition since he started contributing in Bolsa de Agua.

Once everything’s said and done, this record should satisfy current fans' appetite for another "legal" recording to play in their iPod, produce a new crop of fans who will wonder why Jimmy Smith carries a "man purse" in all the photos, and, finally, further the legend of the band that makes "music for the unwashed and well read."

Track lowdown:
  1. “Declineometer” – catchy tune with great writing

  2. “Burn the Honeysuckle” – mandolin and accordion were made for each other

  3. “Mr. Betty” – nice rock tune featuring Johnston’s fiddle

  4. “Shake the Chandelier” – this is why the Gourds are the greatest party band alive

  5. “New Roomate” – Jimmy takes a humorous look at wheels-off roommates

  6. “Hooky Junk” – see “Shake the Chandelier”

  7. “Weather Woman” – ever been inspired to write a song while watching the TV weather report and listening to Neil Young’s “Southern Man”?

  8. “Stab” – Johnston and Russell go after it in this Celtic-influenced instrumental

  9. “Our Patriarch” – just a beautiful song and a great departure for the band

  10. “The Education Song” – a fast, soulful “message” song that reminds me of a cross between Steely Dan circa 1973 and Otis Day and the Knights

  11. “Collection’s Getting” – see “Jolly Joe”

  12. “Pill Bug Blues” – kind of a cross between Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and Clapton’s “Promises”

  13. "Pick and Roll" - they call it a "filk song," but I'm not hip enough to know what that is