So what does it mean when the guy who hired you says, “Keep in touch”?
I got one or two angry e-mails (okay, one) about not sending a column last week. You’d figure, what with the holidays and all, people would have more interesting and important things to think about than my silly opinion column, but I appreciate it nonetheless. I should have mentioned that I’d be taking the week off. In fact, you can count on my taking the week between Christmas and New Year’s off every year, and the week of my birthday (June 5) as well. Oh, don’t cry, that’s still 50 of these things per annum, and if that’s not enough of my blather for you, I’d like to ask you to marry me.
Christmas was okay, the traditional parental tug-of-war notwithstanding. My best gift was a complete set of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I loved ‘em when I was 11, and so far, I love ‘em now as well. (Thanks, G.P.) I also got to see a few people that I won’t get to be around until July, which was great. Of more general interest, I caught Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one of my favorite films of the year. It has everything the American moviegoing public could possibly want, except the English language, and that’ll probably be its undoing. I hope the Academy is warming up that fifth Best Picture slot for it, though.
So, happy new year. I’m still playing catch-up on the Year that Was, but considering the flood of new stuff doesn’t pass beyond a trickle until March or so, I feel okay with that. I have two new albums this time, and with them, I hope to plead the case of one of America’s greatest undiscovered treasures.
I don’t recommend you actually try this, but if you walk down any random street (even Beale Street) and find 10 random people and ask them to name some great guitarists, and you do that 10 times, I’d wager my sister’s life that none of the resulting 100 will come up with Phil Keaggy. Those that do know him, mostly in guitar player circles, consider him one of the best to ever hold the instrument. His career spans more than 30 years, and his two new releases are his 24th and 25th. So how come you’ve never heard of him?
Beats the hell out of me.
I’ve been a Keaggy booster since 1991, more than 20 years into his career, when I picked up the stunning acoustic instrumental album Beyond Nature. I wish I could go back and hear him play an acoustic for the first time again, ‘cause it felt like magic. There’s a certain miniscule school of players who can make full use of the 12-string guitar, and Keaggy numbers among them. The fact that he also composes intricate and yet hummable pieces for that instrument and then casts them in lights that even non-guitarists (like me) can fall in love with is a terrific gift.
If acoustic instrumentals were all Keaggy could do, that might still be enough, but his career has been amazingly varied. He’s done beautiful folk (Way Back Home, 1986), Beatlesque pop (Sunday’s Child, 1988), thundering blues (Crimson and Blue, 1992), electric instrumentals that would make Satriani weep (220, 1995) and full concerto music (Majesty and Wonder, 1998). After his unfortunately failed attempt at mainstream success (Phil Keaggy, 1997), Keaggy’s been concentrating on strange and beautiful concept projects. 1998’s Acoustic Sketches gave us a view of his process, and that same year he released On the Fly, perhaps his most complex instrumental piece. In 1999, he concentrated his efforts on Music to Paint By, a four-CD set of glorious moods and colors.
His pair of new discs follows that same experimental vein, which is pretty astonishing, actually. How many 50-something artists do you know who continually push at the accepted boundaries of their careers? Neither of these two discs are like anything Keaggy’s released before, and that alone gets him high marks.
The first is Keaggy’s first vocal project since his self-titled release. Originally conceived as a 22-track, two-CD set, Inseparable has been released by Word Artisan Records as a 15-track single disc. (The full album is available at philkeaggy.com.) Except for some drums on two tracks and a smattering of backing vocals, Inseparable was performed entirely by Keaggy. A lot of it is an experiment in electronic percussion and synth beds, choosing mood over structure, but thankfully never to the extent of Kid A. The first few tracks seem to meander, and it’s not until the title song that a real indelible melody sets in.
Inseparable, in fact, takes a few listens to really appreciate. It’s a long album (73 minutes) and its uneven nature makes it almost impenetrable. Still, there are gems to reward those who stick with it, especially “Contemplate the Moon” and “The Seeing Eye.” Plus, crammed amidst the instrumental interludes, reggae experiments and moody techno is an obscure Paul McCartney cover (“Motor of Love,” from his 1987 album Flowers in the Dirt).
I’ve glanced at the track listing for the 22-song version, and oddly enough, it might flow a little better than the single disc does. That’s not to say that those folks hunting down the 15-song version won’t be rewarded, though. Inseparable is an overlong, messy collection, true enough, but it sparkles with innovation and, of course, great guitar playing. Keaggy stretches his voice here like he never has before, and matches it with bizarre instrumentation the likes of which have never been heard on one of his records. Still, it’s so uneven that if it were his only new release of the year, I’d wonder why it took him so long.
Ah, but Lights of Madrid is the real keeper here. An instrumental cornucopia that was once called A Touch of Spain, this album finds Keaggy back on the acoustic and in wonderful Latin mode. This isn’t just some dabblings with rhythm and flamenco flourishes, though. It’s a fully formed work that just happens to bounce to a Spanish beat more often than not.
Every Spanish guitar cliche you can think of is explored in the title track, which leads off the album, and then they’re all thrown out as Keaggy demonstrates that no genre is foreign to him. When backed by percussion sections and violins, Keaggy’s compositions spring to rhythmic life, but it’s when he’s playing solo (or accompanied by another guitarist, as on “Corazon de Fuego”) that you can hear just how good this guy is. It’s a further testament that he makes a style in which he’s never recorded seem effortless for him.
There’s a version of “Praise Dance” (electrified on On the Fly) here, as well as one lone cover – the minute-long “Canarios” by Gasper Sanz. The whole thing reaches an electrifying climax with a 10-minute overture for guitar and orchestra that he’s cleverly titled “Overture for Guitar and Orchestra.” Lights of Madrid, despite its radical departure in tone and style for the guitarist, is Phil Keaggy’s most complete instrumental project since Beyond Nature. If you like the guitar at all, get them both. As for Inseparable, you might want to try some older works first, but it ain’t half bad.
Phil Keaggy’s never going to get in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame (that takes fame first), and MTV is never going to put his middle-aged face in your living room. However, if you’re interested in a great musician with a towering catalog, I encourage you to hunt his stuff down. Incidentally, if you hadn’t gathered this already, he records at a prodigious rate – his third album of 2000, Uncle Duke, is now out as well. Keep ‘em coming, I say.
Next, well, who can tell. Hope I have a steady paycheck by then…
See you in line Tuesday morning.