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Saturday, July 30, 2022

Linda Manzer and the Spirit of the Guitar

The Pikasso built for Pat Metheny by Linda Manzer. Image from www.manzer.com

    
The story goes that Linda Manzer got hooked on instrument building after making a dulcimer for herself in high school, or shortly after, in art college maybe, and never gave it up. Manzer has built several guitars for Bruce Cockburn, and he has purchased others second hand. Currently, Bruce plays two Manzer six strings and a twelve string, as well as the charango, which was the first instrument she built for him. But Cockburn is just one of Manzer’s high-profile clients. Pat Metheny, Stephen Fearing, Mary Lynn Hammond are just some of the remarkable musicians to play her instruments. She has built close to thirty instruments for Pat Metheny alone, including a sitar-style guitar, baritones, and “The Pikasso,” with four necks, two sound holes, and forty-two strings.

     Dulcimers are big in folk circles and were everywhere in the popular music of the 60s and early 70s. Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, even Led Zeppelin had droning dulcimers on their records. The building experience led her to apprentice with Jean Larrivée, one of the most respected and influential luthiers in North America, and one of the first to introduce a cutaway design to the steel-string acoustic guitar. Manzer joined Larrivée’s team in 1974 and apprenticed there until 1978 when she went out on her own. 

     Acoustic guitar players wanting to play high on the neck are impeded by the instrument’s traditional body design. The upper bout, the rounded part of the guitar body on either side of the neck, can be a challenge to navigate. The player has to bring the hand around to the front of the guitar and release the neck. Solid body electric guitars do not present this problem because the body is usually cut away, giving access to the notes higher up on the neck. Most of the sound of an electric guitar comes from the pickups anyway, making large, resonant bodies unnecessary. But an acoustic guitar creates sound as the body vibrates. The more surface area available, the louder and fuller the sound. 

    In the early and mid-70s, players like Michael Hedges, Richard Thompson, John Renbourn, and Bruce Cockburn were pushing the limitations of the instrument. Jean Larrivée responded by building an acoustic guitar with a cutaway design to give the player access to the upper frets. His first models to incorporate the design were called the Larrivée C-series. Bruce Cockburn received one of two of these early cutaways, which perpetuated the idea that the C-series had been made specifically for Bruce, a story he denied in an interview with Acoustic Guitar Magazine.[1] 

    But David Wren, a luthier apprenticing at the same time as Linda Manzer, remembers it differently. Cockburn had been visiting Larrivée’s shop in Toronto quite regularly in the early 1970s. In an interview with Jon Carroll from December 17, 2000, posted on The Cockburn Project, David Wren remembers that Bruce “requested a cutaway, which at that time was a completely outrageous idea. I had never seen that on a flat-top steel string.”[2] So, either the first steel-string acoustic guitar was made for Bruce Cockburn, or he was given one of the first made.

     The cutaway design, now a standard option for acoustic guitar, is not without critics. Don Ross, among many other players, has noticed a loss of tone and resonance with the reduced surface area of the soundboard. Bruce Cockburn dismisses the argument outright.

     “You know, I honestly don’t give a shit. I really don’t,” he said in our 2019 interview for the Canadian folk music magazine Penguin Eggs. “If a guitar is a good guitar, it’s a good guitar. They all sound different. You could take two Martin D-18s built five years apart and they don’t sound the same, although they are constructed in the same manner. It’s the individual instrument, how it feels in your hands, and how it sounds to the individual player. There are trade offs, although I don’t know if it has to do with the cutaway as much as the construction.”

     Amplification is a much more immediate problem for the acoustic player than a reduced resonating surface, especially for a performing musician. Cockburn searched for a long time for an acoustic guitar that could be better amplified on stage. In small clubs and coffee houses, the acoustic player might get by without amplification, or with a microphone placed in front of the sound hole, but in larger venues the acoustic guitar needs to be wired for sound. Acoustic guitars are notoriously difficult to amplify. Adding pickups to the acoustic can make it sound like an electric, and then what’s the point? Microphones mounted inside the body are prone to create feedback and to muffle the sound. Modern electronics have pretty much rectified these problems. The acoustic guitar pickup systems used now, even in less expensive instruments, are remarkably good at reproducing the natural timbre of an acoustic guitar.

     While at Larrivée’s shop, Cockburn met Linda Manzer and David Wren, both of whom were apprenticing with Jean Larrivée. He eventually acquired three guitars by Wren, one of which was lost in a fire at a rehearsal studio. Soon after, Linda Manzer began her independent practice, and Bruce became one of her clients.

     Linda has received a lot of attention for the Pikasso guitar built for Pat Metheny. It’s an attention grabber. The first Pikasso guitar was built in 1984 when Metheny asked for an instrument with “as many strings as possible.”[3] Linda offered him forty-two strings on four necks, with two sound holes. It looks like an instrument played in the bar on Tatooine while Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan plan their escape, or an experiment in teleportation gone horribly wrong. The body of the instrument is so large and cumbersome that it led Linda to another innovation to the acoustic guitar’s centuries-old design called “The Manzer wedge.”

     The Manzer wedge is a slight tapering of the guitar body at the lower bout where the player’s arm rests. It gives freer access to the strings and helps reduce strain on the elbow caused by reaching over the guitar body and by repetitive movement.

     Manzer saw the ergonomic benefits of her wedge innovation immediately but thought it might be too much of an extreme modification to an instrument that has seen very little change in centuries. “The idea for the wedge actually came about from a discussion I had with [luthier] Tony Duggan-Smith while trying to figure out how to make such a huge guitar more ergonomic for Pat. I started incorporating the ‘Manzer Wedge’ into all my guitars, but because it was an incredibly radical change to the guitar design at that time, I was afraid people would boot me out of the guitar making world.”

 

    She needn’t have worried. Players who tried the wedge design were immediately taken with the comfort it offered. Cockburn found that the modification helped relieve a pinched nerve in his elbow. And soon, other luthiers were adopting the design into their builds.

 

    “I was very discreet about it for the first few years, but once people started copying the design I realized I had to attach my name to it so people would know it was my idea, and that I wasn’t copying someone else,” says Linda.

 

    Rather than trying to prevent other luthiers from using the modification, Linda made it open source, for a price. “At the beginning, I gladly excepted a bottle of wine each time somebody used it. If I had kept that up I would have quite a wine collection,” she says.

 

    The wedge is now open for anyone to use if due credit is given to its inventor.

 

    Guitar-making is akin to a spiritual practice for Linda Manzer, and players speak of her instruments as living beings. There is a bit of animism at play with instruments and musicians. An instrument needs to be played, otherwise they quite literally go to sleep. The wood becomes rigid. After a prolonged time without use, the instrument will sound thin and become less playable. The more regularly an instrument is played, the more it opens up. A good guitar gets better with age, if consistently played. And the guitar will change in response to the specific player. Wear on the fret wires and fretboard under the strings and the back of the neck reveals the favorite positions of the guitarist. Slowly, a guitar will mirror the player’s habits. Many guitar players claim an instrument takes on the spirit of the player.

 

    “I actually do believe objects can hold a little essence of the person they spend a lot of time with,” says Linda Manzer. “I have personally experienced getting a guitar back from somebody for repair and feeling as if they are in the room with me. After a few days that leaves, and I infuse the guitar back with a little bit of me. It sounds a little hokey, but I bet someday in the future what I feel intuitively will be scientifically proven.” 

 

     She does not produce a great many guitars, and her instruments, new and used, are prized among players. These are not entry level instruments. A used instrument, like the 1979 model formerly owned by Stephen Fearing, has been listed for $14,000 US. A new Manzer guitar can go for $25,000 and more. The building process can take eighteen months. It is slow, meticulous work.

 

    In 1989, Stephen Fearing was looking for a new guitar. His Guild D-35 was falling apart. He’d heard of Linda Manzer through his friend the late Willie P. Bennet, for whom Fearing’s current band Blackie and the Rodeo Kings began as a tribute. As luck would have it, Linda had a guitar for sale.

 

    “I like the idea of hand-built guitars,” says Fearing. “And I was definitely aware of Larrivée. Somehow, I knew that Linda had studied with Larrivée, which made me curious.”

 

    Fearing paid $2,900 for his first Manzer guitar, which, he says, “was a king’s ransom at the time.”

 

    He played that guitar for thirty years until, on the anniversary of that purchase, Linda Manzer presented Fearing with a new guitar. “I’d been trying to figure out how I could afford a new one,” he says. Astonishingly, a fan willed Fearing a Linda Manzer guitar that had not been played. It had sat on a stand in the corner of a room for years. When Stephen Fearing received it, the guitar needed some work. He brought it to Tony Duggan-Smith, who performed a neck reset, which involves removing the neck from the body, adjusting the joint, reattaching, then refinishing the sound board. The guitar also had a mother-of-pearl unicorn on the headstock, which Stephen had removed.

 

    Linda took it back in trade for the new guitar.

 

    “It’s an astounding guitar,” says Fearing of the new instrument. “It has the wedge, and it has my signature beautifully inlaid on the twelfth fret. She cut it out of mother of pearl. Linda said she didn’t breathe for an hour. Mother of pearl is super thin and very brittle. She glued a piece to thin plywood then used a Dremel tool to cut around my signature. Astounding.”

 

    In recent years, Linda Manzer has been building guitars for exhibitions in art galleries. It is kind of full circle. Before she joined Jean Larriveé’s team at the age of twenty-two, Linda studied painting in college.

 

    One recent project included six fellow Larrivée protégés, whom Manzer calls her “tribe of littermates,” each building a guitar in honour of a member of The Group of Seven. Linda’s guitar is a tribute to Lawren Harris and his painting Mt Lefroy (1930). The main part of the guitar is a traditional six string, but a shorter, eight-stringed harp neck juts up toward the player like the mountain peak for which it’s named. The guitar body is painted white like winter on Abbot Pass and gradually becomes icy blue toward the harp neck, which is shaped to resemble Mt. Lefroy itself. The guitar is now part of the Group of Seven permanent holdings at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario. Bruce Cockburn surprised Manzer by composing a piece for the instrument called “The Mt. Lefroy Waltz," which was later released on his Crowing Ignites album with a band arrangement of bass, drums, cornet, and electric guitar, but no little harp.

 

    “I tried to come up with something icy sounding,” Cockburn told The Globe and Mail’s Brad Wheeler. “The guitar favours the higher frequencies, and I tried to write that into the piece. It played very well. I was even able to use the ‘harp’ strings that are part of its architecture.”[4] 

 

    Manzer continues to build for players as well and is excited about the quality of luthier-built guitars in Canada at present.

 

    “I notice other builder’s designs,” she says. “But I don’t particularly study them. I am more interested in building techniques and how other builders technically assemble their guitars, the tonal choices they make. There are so many great and innovative builders out there right now. It’s nice to see everyone sharing ideas and technique.” 



[1] Acoustic Guitar Magazine. (January 28, 2015) [Video] https://youtu.be/W8sYV_eo7_Y?t=1420

[2] Carroll, J. (December 17, 2000). Interview with David Wren. http://cockburnproject.net/news/001217davidwren.html

[3] Pikasso. (n.d.) https://manzer.com/guitars/custom-models/pikasso/

[4] Wheeler, B. (December 31, 2016). Masterwork guitar exhibit honours Group of Seven. The Globe and Mail.


 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Cockburn Conspiracy #43 – The Moranis Deception

Few secrets in Canadian history have been as closely guarded as the Cockburn-Moranis connection. Here now, after minutes of research and groundless speculation, I make the stunning claim that songwriter Bruce Cockburn and actor Rick Moranis are in fact the same person!

I offer as evidence the following:

1. Just look at them! These images have not been altered.

 25 Bruce Cockburn ideas | bruce, musician, musicStars: RICK MORANIS Stock Photo - Alamy

 "Bruce Cockburn"        "Rick Moranis"

 

2. Have you ever seen them together? I have not, and so I conclude that my premise is sound. Furthermore, should photographic evidence surface of the Canadian icons together, rigorous analysis will be necessary to establish authenticity. Deep fake technology and simple image editing programs could easily alter such documentation. Even if a photograph surfaces of the two together, I have made up my mind already.

3. “Rick Moranis” plays guitar! Look no further than this recently uncovered document of  Moranis – or is it Cockburn in his Moranis persona – playing with The Recess Monkeys at a high school dance. It is curious that Cockburn has never acknowledged his tenure as lead singer of The Recess Monkeys.




One might challenge the video evidence: “Wait. I’ve seen Bruce Cockburn play guitar. He plays right-handed, while ‘Moranis’ is playing left-handed.”

Good point, but consider that Bruce Cockburn is in fact left-handed. He claims to have never learned to play left handed.  Witnesses attest to seeing Cockburn sign autographs with his left hand. Add to this anecdotal evidence, the fact that he wears a watch on his right arm, which is common among sinistral people. 

Furthermore, "Moranis" uses two fingers for his G-chord in a manner similar to Cockburn, by placing a thumb over the top of the fretboard. 

Memoir | BRUCE COCKBURN

          Observe Cockburn/Moranis displaying his left-handedness in public.  Photo by Brent Reid.


4. “Rick Moranis” plays guitar about as well as Cockburn might left-handed after playing right-handed for 60 years. But Moranis is playing, like Elizabeth Cotten and so many other lefties, a guitar strung for a right-handed player. The high strings are on top. Jimi Hendrix played a guitar made for a right-handed player but strung it traditionally with low strings on top. Left-handed guitars were hard to find and players adapted. 

5. When given the opportunity to respond to these allegations, Cockburn did not deny the likeness. I phrased the question slyly, so as not to reveal that the charade has been exposed, by asking who might play him in the movie of his life: “Back when SCTV was on the air, everyone hoped that Rick Moranis would do a Cockburn impression,” I said.

The vagueness of Cockburn’s response is telling:  I seem to recall that having happened. It’s a hazy memory, which I don’t fully trust, but I have a mental picture of Moranis wearing a white leisure suit with a trio of female backup singers, singing a kind of lounge version of 'Wondering Where the Lions Are' against a hokey 'nature' backdrop. In my memory it was very funny. I wonder if I actually saw that or dreamt it...”

Notice his careful choice of language: “seem to recall,” “hazy memory, which I don’t fully trust,” and “I wonder if I actually saw that or dreamt it…”

I am willing to consider, based upon Cockburn’s obfuscation around the Moranis inquiry, that he may be unaware or only partially aware of his alter ego. Perhaps the songwriter enters into a fugue state in which he becomes Rick Moranis. Could this be the information that Cockburn suggests CSIS has on him at the end of the song “Slow Down Fast”? The investigation continues. 

Bruce Cockburn: 'I'm not particularly given to looking back' - The Globe  and Mail

 Photo as published in The Globe and Mail, credit unknown

 

Friday, February 19, 2021

NOTES on Song: "The Song of Wandering Aengus" by W.B. Yeats

                  "The Song of Wandering Aengus" from  An Appointment with Mr. Yeats by The Waterboy

These are just musings. I claim no expertise. 

I have been thinking of a poem by William Butler Yeats called “Song of Wandering Aengus.” It’s a ‘glimmering girl’ poem. Actually, it is the glimmering girl poem. Another term for it is the Enchanted Visitor, removing the gendered language and image. Irish literature, especially the old stuff, is all about fae infatuation and otherworldly visitation. Faerie folk snatch humans, humans cross into the Other Place while in the woods, or in a dream, or exiled from community. In this poem, the speaker and title character meets a strange figure in the woods and spends the rest of his life trying to find her.

The glimmering girl motif repeats through Yeats’ early poems. He was thirty-five in 1899, when he wrote “Song of Wandering Aengus.” For a Christian male of his era, thirty-five is a challenging age. It's two years passed the age of Christ. Two years passed the age of Epiphany. It's the age when Dante got lost in the dark woods, a time to take measure.  There is a well-known biographical parallel in Yeats’ life for the vanishing vision of desire: his unrequited love for the revolutionary Maud Gonne. “Song of Wandering Aengus” is about the ‘one that got away,’ if read biographically.

I don’t favour biographical criticism. Undoubtedly, the circumstances of the writer’s life will influence the writing. There can be no poem without a life to generate that poem. As Leonard Cohen once said, “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” Studying a poem to understand the poet’s life is reverse engineering, forensics. Studying the poet’s life to understand the poem is extrapolation, projection. Elements of these approaches can be helpful, but too much biography in interpretation and application gums up the works. It distorts reception and interferes with the mind’s ability to integrate the poem into one's understanding.

Yeats’ poem is remembered, mostly, for its last lines: “the silver apples of the moon / the golden apples of the sun.” Degrees have been doled out in the business of applying meaning to those phrases. Ray Bradbury borrowed the sun line for the title of a short story collection. In one of those stories, a ship with a giant scoop, like a cosmic backhoe, is sent to bring back samples of the sun. That is all I remember of the story and would have to track my Bradbury books to their hollow, which I am not willing to do at the moment, in order to expand on the story. So you’ll have to take my word for it. I must have read the story, or maybe a teacher read it to us in class as they used to do, because I remember gassing on the idea of being able to walk on the sun. Given the right boots, you could walk on the sun. If the sun was matter that can be scooped into a bucket, then it can be walked on too. I must have been quite young when I heard that story.

Aengus, the speaker in the poem, could be the Old Irish god Aengus, a lover, healer, and patron to the poet. Aengus appears in Yeats’ poetry frequently. The Aengus we meet in “Song” is restless:

 

                        I went out to the hazel wood,

                        Because a fire was in my head,

 

Yeats hits the reader with magick from the first line, although we might not see it at once. He leaves the lines open for magick, might be a better way of stating it. Hazel is strongly associated with Earth magick. It’s the dousing wand. Hazel finds water, in the old way of living in the world. The man who doused for water behind my childhood home [more on this later] used hazel branches. And doesn’t Sybill Trelawney, the scrying professor in the Harry Potter series I can never read, wield a hazel wand? Yeats gives Aengus a wand, too:

 

                     And cut and peeled a hazel wand,

                     And hooked a berry to a thread;

 

The four lines quoted above make up the first half of the first octave (eight lines stanza) in the poem. The octave structure is interesting because Yeats alters the rhyme in the last four lines of each stanza. The effect is to create internal quatrains (four-lined stanzas) within each of the poems three octave stanzas. The rhyme scheme runs ababcded in the first two stanzas, but Yeats breaks the pattern in the third octave. The effect of this structure creates a turn in the first octave. We get:

           

                      I went out to the hazel wood,

                     Because a fire was in my head,

                     And cut and peeled a hazel wand,                 

                     And hooked a berry to a thread;

                     And when white moths were on the wing,

                      And moth-like stars were flickering out,

                      I dropped the berry in the stream

                      And caught a little silver trout.

 

It seems easy enough. Aengus has a lot on his mind, wakes up early, goes fishing. But why, Aengus, why? “Because a fire was in my head,” he tells us. Where better to go with a fire in one’s head than to a forest of water-finding trees?

 Aengus makes a fishing pole might be a good way to describe the set up for the octave’s turn. Yet, it is not a pole, or a rod, but a wand, which points the reader to the ritual beneath the action. And when he baits the hook, we don’t see the hook. There is no hook; it’s the act of hooking a berry to a thread that we witness.

 White moths arrive to mark morning and to replace the stars as they fade. Here Yeats gives an internal rhyme, the only overt internal rhyme in the poem. It’s like he is offering a transition through the broken abab pattern in the first four lines: “[…] on the wing / […] flickering out.”

The last end rhymes bring it all together: “[…] flickering out / [,,,] silver trout.”

 Yeats has hooked us.

The second stanza introduces the “glimmering girl” everybody has been waiting for:

 

                            When I had laid it on the floor

                             I went to blow the fire a-flame,

                             But something rustled on the floor,

                             And someone called me by my name:

                              It had become a glimmering girl

                              With apple blossom in her hair

                              Who called me by my name and ran

                              And faded through the brightening air.

 

It’s a quaint idea, perhaps offensive in our age. The fish becomes a woman – “girl” -- with no less than “apple blossom in her hair.” And she knows the dude’s name! Calls it out, runs off, or vapourizes. Of course, he spends his life searching for her, the exemplar of beauty, a woman from a fish, a woman who knows him. We have to step back from the specifics. Yeats saw a “glimmering girl” because that is what the old stories told him to see. Likely that is what his libido wanted him to see as well: a magical woman pulled from a stream, the great fish of desire calling to him. This is the enchanted visitor. For another poet, it could be a man from an eel. From Yeats, we get the glimmering girl who fades in “brightening air.”

It’s not clear if “brightening” is from the sun as it declares morning, or if it is meant to describe a less literal transformation. Brighten can mean ‘to purify’ as well as to make brighter. Yeats applies the present participle verbs “glimmering” and “brightening” as adjectives to shine up the girl and the air, respectively. Light manifests in these lines, and the actions of glimmering and brightening are embodied in the fish-girl and in the air. 

The last octave tells us that the Aengus we’ve been listening to is looking back, although still actively searching for the girl he saw by the brook:

 

              

                        Though I am old with wandering

                             Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

                             I will find out where she has gone,

                             And kiss her lips and take her hands;

                            And walk among long dappled grass,

                            And pluck till time and times are done,

                            The silver apples of the moon,

                        The golden apples of the sun.

 

The reader misses out on Aengus’s adventures. We don’t know how long he has searched, or where the search has taken him beyond “hollow lands and hilly lands.” And maybe those descriptions are enough. The alliteration of hollow and hilly is quite lovely. There is also something jarring about the image of “hollow lands.” Were these places void of substance, or literally hollow? Both? To what degree? The lines in the last verse are beautiful, I think, and contrast the controlled narative voice in  the first stanza. Remember the “hazel wood” and “hazel wand”? These are not easily spoken. The word “hazel” alone requires some quick stretching. By the last verse, the voice is lyrical: “old with wandering,” “long dappled grass,” “pluck until time and times are done.” The poem demonstrates a song manifesting from events. By the end, Aengus is singing.

The verb “pluck” is an interesting one. If this poem were a limerick, “pluck” might give us pause to wonder where it is going. Yeats uses “pluck” with intention. The apples being plucked are metaphorical apples. These lines, the most famous of the poem, offer an apotheosis. The entire poem rises to these lines. It ends with the speaker looking into the future with his beloved. In his fantasy, they will be together until not only they run out of time but until the end of "times” as well. This brings another motif in the poem, a nod to the carpe diem motif that runs through western literature. Long translated as “seize the day,” the phrase carpe diem instructs to grab all one can. Robin Williams’ school master in Dead Poet’s Society instructs his students to "seize the day" to, quoting Henry David Thoreau, “suck all the marrow of life.”

But it is a subjective translation of carpe diem that has been adopted by the modern west. ‘Seize the day’ is the language of conquest, of war, violence. It’s the perfect motto for a culture obsessed with accomplishment and assertive action. However, “carpe” does not have to be translated as “seize.” It is more similar to the word, you guessed it, “pluck.” The original proponents of carpe diem were telling us to pluck the day, like a flower, like an apple. The phrase comes into English from Horace’s Ode I.11, in which he advises the reader: “[…] Time goes running, even / As we talk. Take the present, the future’s no one’s affair.” The Ode reminds the reader to tend to the moment, to pluck the days like apples from trees.           

And that’s where Yeats has led us and led Aengus, being with a loved one, gathering the moonlight in the evening, the sunlight of the day, until “time and times are done.”

The Waterboys cover the poem beautifully on An Appointment With Mr. Yeats (2011, Proper Records), with Mike Scott changing a word or two. Scott’s revisions, I believe, make the poem stronger. He replaces the repeated “floor” from the second verse and alters the third line entirely. In Yeats, we have:

 

                     When I had laid it on the floor

                      I went to blow the fire a-flame,

                      But something rustled on the floor,

                       And someone called me by my name:

 

Mike Scott, lead singer and main writer of the Waterboys, refines the verse:

 

                       When I had laid it on the ground

                        I went to blow the fire a-flame,

                        But something made a rustling sound,

                         And someone called me by my name:

 

The rhythm is maintained, but the lines become more interesting with the modern “ground” rhyming with the “sound” of the fish becoming the “glimmering girl.” Scott’s alteration to the text also gives us another present participle in “rustling” to match the glimmering and brightening in the same verse. Altered too is one of Aengus’ plans upon meeting up with his infatuation. Yeats has Aengus “take” her hand, which has a degree of possessiveness to it and implies marriage. Mike Scott allows Aengus only to “touch her hands.” It is more gentle and more of a question than an act of conquest.

Poetry and song are indivisible. With “Song of Wandering Aengus” by The Waterboys, we have the poem’s full expression. It’s a rebirth for a poem that is usually remembered only for its last lines, and then, often, in mockery for its grandeur and antiquated diction. The song does not quite reach to the heights of emotion of The Waterboys “big music,” but Sarah Allen’s flute certainly helps bring the song’s energy to the mythic level it deserves.  

    Coming up:       Through Arawak Eyes by David Campbell

                             Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell

                            and, "The Trouble With Musical Friends"

 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

NOTES on Song: PS15 (Candy Rat Records, 2014) by Don Ross

PS15 by Don Ross, an album I loved so much that I bought the t-shirt, both designed by Kurt Swinghammer


Way back in the late twentieth century, with the mortal threat of Y2K looming, a youngish Canadian guitar virtuoso named Don Ross recorded his seventh album in a church in Berlin. Built between 1905 and 1908, Passionskirche (Church of the Passion) was for many years a renowned concert hall that hosted a broad array of acts between its Protestant masses. Produced by folk music legend Artie Traum, Passion Session was released in 1999 on Narada/Virgin Records as part of its aptly named “Masters of the Acoustic Guitar” series. The Narada label began as a purveyor of new-age music and expanded over time to include jazz and experimental artists like Hans Zimmer, Kate Price, Jesse Cook, Oscar Lopez, and Don Ross. Since that time, Narada has been absorbed by Blue Note Records with many of its original titles currently unavailable. The functional dissolution of Narada may have been a contributing factor that led a slightly less youngish Ross to retreat to another church – this time Trinity United in Cannington, Ontario – to record the album again, fifteen years later. 

It should be the easiest thing in the world to record an acoustic guitar. Place a couple of microphones near the sound-hole and start plucking, right? It’s way more complicated, of course. The angles of the microphones, their proximity to each other, and the placement on the instrument all affect the tone and clarity of the recording. Recording oneself is another struggle, or it can be. It must be like a painter making a self-portrait: it’s a mirror image that one sees as a reference, not a true representation. 

The challenge of self-recording may not have been such a big issue for Ross, though. He has self-produced many of his twenty-one albums and, from the sound of it, knows what he’s doing. For those unfamiliar with Don Ross’ style, think of a logging truck, fully loaded, barreling down a pretzel-shaped mountain road. Think of an orangutan swinging through palm forests, each branch bending but never breaking under its weight as the ape soars above the canopy. The music is like a large, graceful beast rising from the ocean. Godzilla in a tutu after some dance lessons. Ross’ solo guitar pieces are arrangements within themselves, at once percussive, lilting, and thundering. When I listen to Don Ross’ music I think of it as Don Ross Music ™, a style so unique it deserves a trademark. A Youtube tour of contemporary fingerstyle acoustic players reveals a modern fascination with percussive play and harmonics, a style that Don Ross truly pioneered along with his friend, the late Michael Hedges

Although the guitar is his main instrument, Ross comes at music like a composer. Of his unique style, Ross has said, “I have always felt that I am playing music on the guitar, as opposed to just playing guitar music. The guitar is a wonderful, gorgeous, portable instrument, capable of playing both melodically and harmonically, but I’m not a guitar head. I also didn’t grow up listening to solo guitar music” (“Don Ross,” Penguin Eggs, Spring 2018). 

 Over thirty-two years of touring, Ross has gained a devoted audience and revered status among guitarists the world over. He has won the National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship two times, which is two times more often than anyone else on planet Earth. When he enters the room, the theme from Rocky plays. Bruce Cockburn, not a bad little guitar player himself, speaking of guitar players he admires, said of Ross, “[He] can produce that effect in me. Especially when you see him live […] doing all these things and you can’t see what he’s doing. It’s like, ‘Oh-oh. I have some woodshedding to do’” (“Bruce Cockburn,” Penguin Eggs, Autumn, 2019). 

Despite universal praise for his innovative style and obvious mastery of the instrument, I have always suspected smoke and mirrors behind Don Ross’ playing. Without the least bit of evidence, and contrary to all valid data, as in the style of our times, I assert that Don Ross has been struggling these decades to play simple three-chord folk tunes. Viewed this way, admiration turns to empathy. I applaud his efforts and admit that, in his flailing after basic chords and four-four rhythms, Ross has stumbled upon a unique sound. Listening to Don Ross Music ™, one marvels that any of it is reproducible. And, yet, he usually manages to play the pieces as recorded. 

The new Passion Session, recorded by Ross in 2014, and released on glorious red vinyl as PS15 by the Wisconsin-based, guitar-loving label Candy Rat, contains the same eleven songs as the original with two tracks swapping sides. Having not heard the original version and without access to it, I cannot say how the recordings differ in sound and performance. But I would be willing to bet tomorrow’s breakfast that PS15 is the keeper. 

 It begins with “Klimbin,” which as the liner notes explain means “junk” in German. Talk about deceptive advertising! The tune is like walking, deep in thought, down Sesame Street. It’s a sunny day, of course. Big Bird is there. Susan, too. But something Oscar the Grouch said about capitalist consumption really gets you thinking as the tune takes a momentary introspective turn before popping back to its lilting pace. 

 “Michael, Michael, Michael,” the second song, was written to commemorate Don Ross’s friend, the guitar genius Michael Hedges who died tragically way too young in an automobile accident in 1997. The piece is joyous and restless, forward-moving, unstoppable, with a middle part that opens up for sorrow to have its way with us before returning to the funky main passage that reminds us all to dance. 

 Another highlight on PS15 is “First Ride.” As Ross explains in the liner notes, the tune is a tribute to Bruce Cockburn. Based around Cockburn’s lovely classic “Foxglove,” the opening riff reminds me of another Cockburn tune, “When You Give It Away.” Yet, because Ross wrote the piece in 1983, that would mean the tribute song would have had to influence Cockburn, which is a neat trick if true. I am not saying that is the case, only that the opening of “First Ride” resembles, maybe to my ears only, Cockburn’s “When You Give It Away.” Ross’ tune seems to quote a few Cockburn licks but is really capturing the essence of the man’s playing. It pays homage to Cockburn’s metronomic thumb work and the spider-like descending runs that weave through his playing. 

With You in Mind,” the third tribute to a guitar master on the album, is dedicated to Pat Metheny and has become a staple for Don Ross concerts, with too many chords and melodies to fit in the ear. 

PS15 is really an album of highlights and writing about each piece does little to add to their beauty. Check it out for yourself. Every piece demonstrates Ross’ prowess as a guitarist but also his gift for melody, and ability to transport the listener. Each piece is like a machine made for travel taking you in different directions. If one can stop wondering about how he does all this with a guitar, the album can function nicely as the mood-setter for gatherings, or as company beside one’s daily chores. There is no lyrical content to interfere with thoughts or reading and writing, just beautiful, impossible sounds. For musicians and those interested in the language of music, this is not passive listening at all, but it pretends to be.