When Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl announced last Monday at AmSouth Amphitheatre that one of the ”greatest living songwriters“ was joining his band onstage, all eyes turned to the diminutive balding man walking on with a guitar. Was it Guy Clark? Steve Earle? Harlan Howard? Well, no, it was transplanted local Peter Frampton.
It was something of a letdown at first, but as is often the case with Foo Fighters, their unfettered enthusiasm couldn’t help but win the audience over. Even more endearing was just how much Frampton clearly enjoyed getting back on the Vocoder to lead this high-energy band through ”Show Me the Way.“ I suppose in this Behind the Music era even former one-album wonders deserve a chance to revisit the spotlight.
Speaking of possibly underrated guitar gods, special note must be given to John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers, who shared the June 12 bill with Foo Fighters. The Chili Peppers were definitely firing on all pistons, but in general, it has been Frusciante’s wide range of musical explorations that’s prevented the band from slipping into a punk-funk rut. Using Flea and Chad Smith’s more than capable rhythm section as his canvas, Frusciante veered from Black Flag thrash to Hendrix psychedelia to soulful chicken-scratch to Andy Gill-style angular rhythm guitar.
Not a bad night of summer music at the AmSouth Amphitheatrewhich otherwise tends to stick to the most predictable bookings (Poison, Motley Crüe, Yes, Dave Matthews Band, a two-night stand with Lynyrd Skynyrd). That said, the forthcoming Pearl Jam/Sonic Youth bill on Aug. 17 should offer more musical surprises.
Brent Rowan and Richard Leo Johnson are both immensely talented, locally based guitarists, but each takes a drastically different approach on his new release. A premier country session stylist who’s been featured on more than 10,000 recording dates over his 20 years in Nashville, Rowan opts for a lyrical, soothing mode throughout Bare Essentials (Rowest). Johnson, a far more flamboyant instrumentalist, rips, flails, and darts all over the map on Language, his second CD for the legendary jazz label Blue Note.
Rowan wrote all 14 selections on Bare Essentials, which spotlights a delicate, expressive sound. It’s haunting and superbly played, especially on such cuts as ”Mister C“ (an evocative tribute to Chet Atkins), ”Waxchie Sunset,“ and ”Cottonwood Canyon.“ The only problem with Rowan’s songs is an absence of tension and drama; his refrains and solos are technically beyond reproach, but the disc’s pastoral quality almost becomes too sedate on songs like ”Goin’ Home“ or ”Fish Creek Falls.“ Even so, Rowan is a great player, and his compositions aptly reflect his love for nature and solitude. Hopefully, his next solo date will include one or two more emphatic, or at least energetic, works alongside the beautiful ballads.
Johnson, by contrast, drew some fire from critics for overdosing on the showmanship on his debut disc, Fingertip Ship. He’s a blazing virtuoso, but on Language, he’s more conscious of grooves, pace, and timing. ”Hip Hop Zep,“ the disc’s opening track, illustrates a more joyful, less somber attitude, as do ”Freestone Peach,“ ”Music Roe,“ and ”Ritual Ground.“ But Johnson also includes vigorous workouts on cuts such as ”New West Helena Blues,“ ”Sweet Jane Thyme,“ and the dashing ”Sketches of Miles.“
While Rowan prefers a laid-back, relaxed format, Johnson sometimes still verges on being too intense. He rips through phrases, spews out barrages of notes, and moves so rapidly that his music can be overwhelming. That said, he offers far less excess on Language than on Fingertip Ship. He has learned to temper his technical skills, and to display more touch and soul in his music.
It’s tough to play vintage music without sounding overly reverential or completely dated. The Gypsy Hombres are neither, despite the fact that their speciality is the ”hot“ stringed jazz sound that hasn’t been in vogue since the ’30s. But rather than just run through countless variations of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli licks, this Nashville trio mixes and matches styles, providing contemporary inflections and showing that it’s still possible to make ”I’ve Got Rhythm“ entertaining in the 21st century.
The Hombres’ latest CD, Cafe Strut, continues their artful juggling. Besides the aforementioned Gershwin classic and an inventive arrangement of ”Freddie’s Waltz,“ there are also covers of Reinhardt’s ”Manoir de Mes Rêves,“ and of all things, The Rolling Stones’ ”Mother’s Little Helper,“ here retitled ”Mutha’s Helpa.“ But the most engaging cuts are originals such as the title cut, written by violinist Peter Hyrka, and ”Gumshoe Boogie,“ which disproves the notion that you can’t combine swing with a funky groove.
”Hot“ jazz fans tend to rival traditional New Orleans jazz lovers in their rigidity. Happily, The Gypsy Hombres don’t take such a narrow tack in their work. Their music upholds the qualities of the form, but can still appeal to people who have never heard of Joe Venuti or The Hot Club of France. Cafe Strut should be available in local stores, or contact The Gypsy Hombres via their Web site: http://www.gypsyhombres.com.
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