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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1307

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Keith Knight: Tear It Up
by George Graham

(Bear Claw Music 15012 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/8/2003)

Folk-style acoustic guitar music has long had an fairly loyal audience, since the popular recordings of the late John Fahey in the 1960s, and on through the 1970s with Leo Kottke, and then with the rise of New Age music in the 1980s, along with the bluegrass-influenced New Acoustic Music scene during the same decade, which continued through the 1990s. Today there are a lot of fine guitarists around the country, and this week we have an impressive recording from a South Carolina-based picker named Keith Knight.

Like many of the current generation of acoustic guitar specialists, Keith Knight started in rock and on electric guitar, though he apparently always had a passion for acoustic guitar. He began his career in Los Angeles, but moved to Austin, Texas, in 1993 where he founded the rock band the Panic Choir, in which he played some mandolin and Dobro as well as both electric and acoustic guitar. The band released a CD called Soul and Luna that attracted some critical attention. In 1997, Knight moved to Charleston, South Carolina where he has been based ever since. He released his debut solo acoustic guitar CD called Hammer Through the Silence in the fall of 1998. Now he is out with Tear It Up, a worthy recording that is pleasingly eclectic in style.

Keith Knight cites the folk bluesman Blind Blake and Leo Kottke as significant influences, and that is readily apparent on Tear It Up, as Knight covers a couple of Blind Blake tunes, and performs in the bluesy, high-energy style reminiscent of Kottke, though Knight does it with his own twists. He plays on six and twelve string guitar, finger-style, bluesy-slide style, and also on a metal resonator guitar. Five of the eleven tracks are vocal, though that it not his strongest suit. What makes this a more interesting recording is the accompaniment. A bass player named Robbie Link is heard throughout on acoustic bass, sometimes adding a jazzy touch, and quite frequently performing with a bow for an effect that runs from classical to ragtime. Also appearing is fiddler Rex McGee, who can sound as jazzy as folky.

Knight is both a versatile and tasteful player. While one can easily hear his influences, he does bring a degree of originality to his playing. And his composing is also notable in the way his writing often take little unexpected twists, rather than following the usual straightforward folk norms for chord changes. And though the instrumentation is always simple, Knight and his colleagues often create distinctive arrangements. About the only disappointment is on the vocal tracks, where one Tazz Halloween adds her backing vocals in a soul style that is somewhat inappropriate for the material.

Leading off is the one Celtic influenced piece on Tear It Up, called The Dublin Dudes. With Jack Herrick and Rob Van Veld adding pennywhstle and percussion respectively, the result captures an Irish feel, but adds the kind of eclecticism and unexpected chord changes that makes this CD so interesting. <<>>

Showing Knight's Leo Kottke influence is an original track called Calimaica. The arrangement resembles some of Kottke's recordings, though Knight's own musical personality is evident on this whimsical but pleasing piece. <<>>

The first of the vocals is a song called Goodbye Ain't Gone written by Barney Malin. The guitar work is especially fine, and the fiddle part adds a nice touch, though they are undermined somewhat by the vocals. <<>>

The vocals are much more effective on the Blind Blake blues standard Chomp Man Blues (which is usually known as "Chump Man Blues"). Robbie Link plays the bass lines with his bow adding an almost tuba-like quality, while Knight plays an authentic-sounding resonator guitar. <<>>

The CD's title Tear It Up is perhaps best personified on a piece called Trotsky's Revenge, a bluesy virtuosic romp taken at breakneck speed. <<>>

Also with an old-time bluesy sound, with a bit of ragtime, is That'll Never Happen No More, another piece by bluesman Arthur "Blind" Blake. Knight's spoon percussion adds an authentic touch, while his resonator guitar work is impeccable. <<>>

For me, one of the highlights of this CD is Texas Tombstone, a high-energy piece that combines Kottke-esque guitar flash with another interesting arrangement for the acoustic trio of guitar, fiddle and bass. <<>>

Another distinctive angle comes on the Knight original Had Enough. With a kind "down in the swamp" quality, the piece highlights Knight's tasteful slide guitar playing, with somewhat off-beat lyrics. <<>>

It's not hard to hear Keith Knight's influences, but the South Carolina finger-style acoustic guitarist brings them together in creative ways. He is not only a virtuosic musician, but his playing is wider-ranging in style than many in the field, encompassing blues, folk, a little Celtic and ragtime. And he brings to his work a level of energy that hints as his rock incarnation. Combined with his creative compositions, and the distinctive contributions by the added players, the result is an outstanding recording that fans of acoustic guitar will not want to miss.

Our grade for sound quality is a solid "A." The acoustic instruments are crisply recorded on, in many cases, vintage German microphones. The hints of electronic effects are used sparingly but effectively, and the dynamic range is good by contemporary standards.

With the popularity of such acoustic guitar mavens as Leo Kottke, Adrian Legg and Dan Crary, Keith Knight on his new CD Tear It Up proves himself to be in their league with a combination of impressive musicianship and musical creativity.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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