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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1460

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Tony Furtado: Thirteen
by George Graham

(Funzalo Records 90060 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/10/2007)

Most musicians tend to specialize. Getting to be good in the field does require a degree of concentration. But there have been a few artists who have done jumped musical boundaries and formats. One of them is Tony Furtado, who has just released a CD called Thirteen.

A native of California, Tony Furtado emerged as a bluegrass banjo prodigy, He took up the instrument at age 12, and by 19 had developed a reputation, winning a national bluegrass banjo championship. In the early 1990s, he recorded some acclaimed CDs on banjo with such guests as Jerry Douglas and Alison Krauss, but then found himself drawn to perhaps the fretboard opposite of the staccato notes of the banjo, slide guitar on both acoustic resonator instruments like the National steel guitar, and electric slide as well. That aspect has been the focus of his more recent recordings.

Now he has moved into being a singer-songwriter, and emphasizes that aspect on Thirteen. The number, by the way, comes not from the number of recordings he has released, though it is getting close, but to a song on the CD, and also a recurring theme of the album, that of luck, bad and good.

Furtado has been based in Portland, Oregon, and has been performing a lot in the Pacific Northwest and the Mountain States, often solo. But for this CD, he went to Tuscon, Arizona, and worked with a studio band of musical luminaries who included Jim Dickinson, known for the long list of artists he produced, including Ry Cooder, the artist who inspired Furtado to take up the slide guitar. Dickinson along with another popular producer, Sean Slade, known for his work with Radiohead and Uncle Tupelo, are heard on keyboards. Also appearing is bassist Dusty Wakeman who has appeared on previous Furtado recordings, and drummer Winston Watson, who played with Bob Dylan at one point.

On this CD, Furtado's vocals are at the center, though his guitar work is featured prominently, and there is some banjo here and there. While Thirteen focuses on Furtado's role as a singer-songwriter, there are three covers from the classic rock period, which might seem unexpected choices, with songs by the Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Elton John. He has varying degrees of success with them, but his original songs are generally worthwhile and strike a decent balance between instrumentalizing and having something to say in the lyrics. With the prominence of the slide guitar, naturally, there is a bluesy flavor to many of the tracks, though Furtado does move in other musical directions as well, notably rock.

Leading off is a bluesy-rock piece called Used. Furtado is heard on a full compliment of instruments, including the slide guitars and banjo. It's an good, energetic instrumental blend and a good song. <<>>

A bit more toward folk-rock is California Food, which Furtado said was inspired by childhood memories of weekends in the Sacramento Delta, and trying to understand the ways of adults. <<>>

Furtado created a song called Hurtin' in My Right Side based on an old field recording of convicts on a work gang. It's an interesting blend of rock, with the traditional aspect and the bluesy acoustic resonator guitar work. <<>>

The first of the covers is the Who's Won't Get Fooled Again, which seems like an odd choice for an album like this. Through the musical backing is rock-oriented, Furtado and company are much more laid back than the original. It's interesting, but comparisons to the original are inevitable, and as a vocalist, Furtado is not exactly Roger Daltry. <<>>

For me, the album's highlight is the original song Thirteen Below, based on the story of Sago mine disaster in West Virginia, in which only one of the thirteen miners survived. Both the composition and the performance are first-class. <<>>

There is an instrumental track called Sevens, done with a somewhat scaled-back band. The one problem with it is that it's the only instrumental. There should be more. <<>>

Furtado writes that as a youth, he wore out his parents' copies of Creedence Clearwater Revival LPs. So he includes his version of the Creedence classic Fortunate Son, which has renewed relevance with the Iraq war. Unlike Furtado's treatment of Won't Get Fooled Again, this version casts an interesting new light on the song. <<>>

Though most of the CD has a kind of underlying blues texture, there is one original song that tends toward the folk in sound. I Wait for This, is a straight-out love song that does seem a bit of an anomaly on this album. But it's a pleasant tune, if a tad on the saccharine side. <<>>

Tony Furtado has had careers as a bluegrass banjo prodigy, a bluesy slide guitarist, and now on this latest recording, a singer-songwriter. He may have a way to go to get to the top of the league in that genre, but his new recording Thirteen is nonetheless, a worthwhile release that combines a number of Furtado's interests, with the bluesy slide guitar not far from the surface, and even some banjo in there. His vocals are generally pleasing and quite good for the folky material, perhaps a bit less appropriate for the rockers. But the playing is first rate, and the arrangements are tastefully done and have a good degree of variety from one track to the next. The title of the CD, with its intentional reference to luck is also the number of tunes it contains.

Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The liner notes point out that the recording was done on 16-track, 2-inch analog tape, late 1960s technology. The sound is clean, and the mix keeps things in the right proportions. However, the dynamic range, the span from loud to soft, is mediocre.

Tony Furtado's new CD Thirteen marks another interesting way-station in the restless musical journey of a creative musician.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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