Arlen Roth,
Slide Guitar Summit
(Aquinnah, 2015)

Acclaimed as a wizard of the Telecaster, Arlen Roth has backed his more famous contemporaries, including Bob Dylan, John Prine, Simon & Garfunkel, Ry Cooder and Levon Helm, over the course of a long and respected career. Though he gets top billing here, Slide Guitar Summit is a collaborative effort. Dedicated to the late Johnny Winter (who plays on an inspired cover of "Rocket 88," the 1951 Jackie Brenston r&b number sometimes pegged as the first rock 'n' roll record), it features a range of guitar notables united in their fascination with the sound of a slide (usually bottleneck, knife, or metal bar) scraping guitar strings.

The slide is associated with blues, of course, though it comes apparently out of Hawaiian music, widely popular in the early decades of the last century and picked up on by African-American and white guitarists alike. It was a feature of the mid-century, Deep South-shaped Chicago blues. I must have heard it first on a Mississippi Fred McDowell album, and as I worked my way backward from that introduction to the downhome blues, I heard it on a lot of records and fell in love with the sound, sometimes wild and gritty, sometimes dreamy and contemplative.

There's rather more of the wild and gritty than the dreamy and contemplative on Summit, but "Paradise Blues" (with Rick Vito), harking back to those Hawaiian roots, and "Amazing Grace" (Greg Martin) nicely exemplify the quiet side. Yes, I'm as sick of "Amazing Grace" as you are -- in fact, three very different versions appeared on review albums, including this one, in my mail the same week -- but if you can bear to hear it one more time, this is a good one. And if you can't, it's the last cut.

That qualification aside, I think this is a smashing album, and I've played it repeatedly and with undiminished pleasure since its arrival. The songs and tunes, familiar or unfamiliar to me, are well and interestingly chosen. There's even a song that, while I don't exactly hate it, I've never been especially enamored of, namely the sort-of dopey "Peach Pickin' Time in Georgia," first cut by Jimmie Rodgers in 1932. Roth and Greg Martin offer up something of a radical reinvention, infusing it with with a raw, explosive energy that doesn't falter for one moment of its 5:41 playing time. They even manage to insert a joke about how "there's Headhunters down in old Kentucky." Rodgers sang the line "there's bluegrass down in old Kentucky." In their heyday the Kentucky Headhunters, of which Martin was a founding member, were a rock 'n' roll band with a country accent. By bluegrass Rodgers meant meadow grass, not the yet-to-be-invented musical genre. The Headhunters' greatest hit was an electrified arrangement of bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe's "Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine."

Among the participating artists is the great David Lindley, who collaborates with Roth on a piano-less reading (I wouldn't have thought it possible) of Professor Longhair's blackly comic "Her Mind Is Gone." Even without Prof's unforgettable keyboard style, the two capture not only the distinctive rhythm but the arch attitude. Roth and Cindy Cashdollar ratchet up Leon McAuliffe's Western swing standard "Steel Guitar Rag" for the 21st century, and they do the same for a less likely suspect, clarinetist Acker Bilk's lounge instrumental "Stranger on the Shore," an international hit in 1961. Other electric-roots masters -- Sonny Landreth, Lee Roy Parnell and more -- fill the rest exhilaratingly.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 May 2015

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new