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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1290

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Tony Furtado: American Gypsy
by George Graham

(What Are Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/24/2002)

With bluegrass experiencing a great renaissance, a fair number of prominent musicians, including country performers like Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless have returned to the music of their roots, which has helped to reinforce the rise of the genre, encouraged as it was by the Grammy winning soundtrack to the film O Brother Where Art Thou?

It has also provided new impetus to the so-called New Acoustic music scene which began in the 1980s with young, virtuosic musicians bringing a very eclectic approach to the instrumentation of bluegrass. But one aspect common to all this music, virtually by way of definition, is the purity of acoustic instrumentation. About the only thing that plugs in is an electric bass, where there is one used.

But Béla Fleck has carried his eclecticism to a logical extension in going electric with his banjo through his popular and widely acclaimed band the Flecktones. This time we have another artist known for his work in the New Acoustic scene who has gone electric, and it's another banjo player, Tony Furtado. His new CD is called American Gypsy.

Like Béla Fleck and Nickel Creek's Chris Thile, Tony Furtado, was an instrumental prodigy while still in his teens. The California native and current Oregon resident twice won a National Bluegrass banjo championship, and joined Bay Area bluegrass fiddler Laurie Lewis and her band Grant Street. Furtado released Swamped, his debut album under his own name in 1989, and soon began to attract attention for his fine, and rather wide-ranging mix of acoustic styles. His sophomore release in 1992, Within Reach, included some of the bright lights of the acoustic scene, including Jerry Douglas and Alison Krauss. Furtado also was developing an interest in the slide guitar, and included some in his 1994 release Full Circle.

Furtado became enchanted with a Ry Cooder album Paradise and Lunch, and decided to plunge headlong into playing the slide guitar, spending nearly two years practicing and honing his skills. In 1997, he released his first electric slide guitar album, Roll My Blues Away, featuring a rock rhythm section.

Now he is out with American Gypsy, his most diverse album yet. He plays both electric and acoustic slide guitar, as well as his banjo, in music that runs from jazz-rock fusion in style to Celtic to rural blues. He also does some vocals, and proves himself to be a respectable and likable singer. The result is an album that is both entertaining and absorbing, with its intriguing mix of influences, often within a single tune, and his skill at putting a new spin on some old songs.

While the slide guitar style is often most associated with the blues, that is only one component of American Gypsy. The eclecticism of the album is also reflected in the musicians who join him on the CD, many of whom come from a jazz background, including Paul McCandless, the oboe and sax player of the pioneering group Oregon, and who also played with Béla Fleck. Tom Brechtlein, who used to be in jazz pianist Chick Corea's group is heard on drums and percussion, and Scott Amendola, who performs with the distinctive jazz and fusion guitarist Charlie Hunter, also contributes percussion. Rounding out the regular group is John R. Burr on keyboards, whose career has included a lot of studio work. Burr plays a more prominent role than one might expect of keyboards in such music. He is heard mainly on organ, as well as at the piano. The bassist is Myron Dove, who plays mainly electric bass, sometimes in the funk style.

The CD opens with one of its more interesting musical amalgams, Oh Berta, Berta, which Furtado says is a traditional prison work song. He puts a contemporary spin on the tune while keeping its original haunting plaintive quality. As he often does on the album, Furtado plays both acoustic and electric slide guitar by way of overdubbing, but guest guitarist Gawain Mathews is also part of the performance, as are some backing vocalists. <<>>

Another appealingly eclectic piece is the original instrumental Angry Monk, on which Furtado gets out his banjo to accompany both his electric and acoustic slide guitars. The piece is another set of musical juxtapositions, hinting at a jazz-rock fusion sound with the bluesy organ. <<>>

Rising Fog represents another aspect of the CD. One of its most electric tracks, it takes a decided detour to New Orleans for its rhythmic influences, while it gives Furtado a vehicle for his strong electric slide guitar work. <<>>

Furtado's banjo is prominent on perhaps the album's most unlikely cover tune, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Some of Shelly's Blues. The result is pleasing, though hardly the most innovative. <<>>

Furtado's slide guitar is put to good use on the traditional folk-blues song Staggerlee. Furtado skillfully captures both the folk and blues facets of the of the often-recorded piece. <<>>

Furtado is back on his banjo for the track called Hartford, a pretty, original instrumental elegy to John Hartford. In keeping with Hartford's spirit of eclecticism, the arrangement features an Irish-style button accordion and a pennywhistle, played by Paul McCandless. <<>>

Furtado does a straight-out Celtic piece called Tinker's Fancy, a very nice medley of traditional reels, with McCandless again on pennywhistle. <<>> Interestingly, McCandless uses a bass clarinet to emulate the drone of some very large bagpipe. <<>>

In his CD booklet notes, Furtado says that it was 3 AM, in the studio one night, and his producer Cookie Marenko said just to play. The resulting solo electric slide guitar improvisation is called Kentucky Stripmine, and it shows how Furtado can evoke the deep recesses of the blues in his playing. <<>>

Probably my favorite track on the CD is another traditional piece Rove Riley Rove, an creative and yet very appealing arrangement that manages to combine both blues and Celtic influence. <<>>

American Gypsy, the new CD by bluegrass banjoist turned slide guitar man Tony Furtado, is a skillful mixture of musical and stylistic ingredients that might not normally be thought to be very compatible, such as blues and Celtic. But Furtado brings the diverse sounds together in large part because of his dual musical background and his ability as an arranger, not to mention his fine playing on both instruments. Those who still associate Furtado with the New Acoustic and bluegrass scene might be in for a bit of a surprise. But this is the kind of album that the musically open-minded can't help but like, it's so adeptly-arranged and performed, and the selection of material is also quite fascinating. The backing musicians with their different backgrounds, especially jazz, add to the CD's effective stylistic amalgam, though Furtado remains center stage with either his guitar, banjo or vocal, for most of the CD.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The recording effectively mixes the electric and acoustic elements in a seamless blend, and there is both good clarity and effective but subtle use of the studio for overdubbing and some atmospheric effects. The dynamic range is only fair, with audio compression sometimes being quite audible.

Most albums reflect the musical interests of the artists making them. Furtado's two-way career on bluegrass banjo and bluesy slide guitar come together on American Gypsy, with the help of some fine backing musicians, for a very enjoyably eclectic recording.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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