Guitarists come and guitarists go and a few of them seemingly stick around forever. Bill Frisell, 63, is in this latter category. He’s kissed the sky so many times in his evolving artistry that I thought I had him pegged as this avant-garde fusionist with forays into classical, noise and complex jazz. As house guitarist for ECM Records, he’d played with the brightest and the most adventurous of them all. In the all-too-hip New York City loft scene of the 1980s, his wizardry astounded even the most jaded of hipsters.
But with the release of Guitar In The Space Age! (Okeh) late last year, he proves once again, he is not to be categorized. For it is here that he fondly remembers what got him there in the first place: “Tired Of Waiting” by The Kinks, “Pipeline” by The Chantays, “Rumble” by Link Wray, “Rebel Rouser” by Duane Eddy, “Baja” by The Astronauts, “Cannonball Rag” by Merle Travis, “Bryant’s Boogie” by Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West, “Surfer Girl” by The Beach Boys, “Turn Turn Turn” by The Byrds and five more delicious morsels of basic, succinct, primal instrumental prowess.
Helped along by a second electric, pedal steel, drums, vibraphone, acoustic and electric bass, acoustic guitar and slide guitar, Frisell plays these simplistic childlike mantras to his youth like a man committed to reaffirming his own value system. Jimi Hendrix said “may you never hear surf music again” as he ripped open the guts of novelty hits. Sun Ra said “space is the place” for his astral projections. Apparently, Bill Frisell is saying he’s not the serious musician you think he is all the time. He probably reads comic books and watches cartoons because he obviously still loves this teenage twang.
If You Think It’s Hot In Here… (Ellersoul/City Hall) by The Mike Henderson Band has this Tennessee stalwart playing some mean blues. Sure, he still plays the famed Bluebird Café in Nashville every Monday where the line snakes around Hillsboro Pike. He still is the man-in-demand when it comes to that perfect studio guitar lick. And he still is an award-winning songwriter. But now he just wants to shout out the blues, blow his bad-ass blues harp and sting that ax like he did with Joe Bonamassa recently at that gorgeous Colorado Red Rocks Amphitheater interpreting Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf.
Back in the ‘90s, he made four of the best alternative country records of that decade, sidestepping the industry powers-that-be with his own damn label, thank you. That’s the kind of pioneering guy he is. But here in 2015, he’s covering Melvin Jackson (“Gamblin’ Blues”), Sonny Boy Williamson (“Unseen Eye”) and, of course, Muddy (“Mean Red Spider”) while giving forth with some new originals helped by keyboardist Kevin McKendree who also tickles the ivories for Delbert McClinton.
For my money, Paul Simon just may be America’s greatest living songwriter (Leonard Cohen is a Canadian). In Simon & Garfunkel, he wrote everything and his brilliant guitar playing almost went unnoticed. That said, The Complete Albums Collection (Columbia/Legacy), all 13 discs of it, is annoyingly redundant. Sure, the 1964 Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. debut is brilliant, every track, a watershed moment for the American folk music scene. It contained “The Sound Of Silence,” one of his greatest songs, a song that still evokes goosebumps 51 years later. The 1966 follow-up, Sounds Of Silence, has a more rocked-up version. Later that same year comes Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme, all 29:14 of it, but again, a gem. In 1967, The Graduate might’ve been that year’s best movie but its soundtrack is a hot mess. There’s that song again, not once but twice, along with some tepid soundtrack music by hack Dave Grusin, and re-recorded S&G songs that sound as if you’re listening to them through a long funnel. All is forgiven, though, with the sublime “Mrs. Robinson,” which also appears on their next album, Bookends, one of 1968’s finest. Bridge Over Troubled Water, in 1970, of course, is their masterpiece (the title track my least favorite song on the album).
Here’s where it gets dicey. Greatest Hits (1972) has that least-favorite again, “Mrs. Robinson” again and the fifth sound of silence. The Concert In Central Park (1982) has the sixth. Old Friends Live On Stage (2004) has the seventh version of the same song. Live From New York (1967) has the eighth. Live 1969 has the ninth. Too much of a good thing, as much as I do love the song, is not a good thing.
Granted, there are some wonderful moments on these live albums that I never heard like a heartfelt cover of “That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine” by The Everly Brothers, a reprise of their “Hey Schoolgirl” single recorded in 1957 when they were known as Tom & Jerry, the introduction of yes, Don and Phil Everly, for “Bye Bye Love,” “Citizen Of The Planet” (a never-before-released bonus) and about six or seven other pristine moments. But still, the same songs are recycled throughout, maybe not nine times, are enough to make brilliance tedious.