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(Funzalo 31 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/26/2011)
To be good at something as an artist usually involves specializing and concentrating on that specialty. But many artists tend to be restless in their interests and like to branch out. Sometimes that involves a side project or two, and sometimes it means changing direction significantly. This week we have the latest recording by a versatile performer who has changed specialities a couple of times. It's Tony Furtado, whose new release is called Golden.
Tony Furtado, a native Californian, first attracted attention as a teenaged bluegrass banjo prodigy, winning national bluegrass banjo competitions twice by the time he was 19. He recorded a series of bluegrass albums for Rounder Records with his own group and as part of gatherings of banjo players such as Tony Trischka. He was part of an eclectic bluegrass band called Sugarbeat. But he found himself increasingly attracted to the slide guitar style, influenced by Ry Cooder, and in the early 2000s plunged into that wholeheartedly. He established himself on that instrument doing blues and more eclectic styles on the various acoustic and electric slide style guitars he played. By the middle of the decade, he changed direction again, moving into the realm of the singer-songwriter, after not being a very frequent vocalist previously.
While he would sometimes de-emphasize his previous musical phase with each new one, more recently, he has been combining the three musical paths increasingly. His new CD Golden, his fifteenth release, perhaps best integrates Furtado's tripartite musical direction. Furtado writes that this recording is centered on Portland, Oregon. For almost a quarter century, Furtado has been an itinerant musician, almost constantly on the road. Though he resided in Portland, he did not spend a lot of time there. Furtado says he has settled down and consciously made the CD exclusively in a Portland studio with supporting musicians from the city, people he has been hanging out with. From the standpoint of the listener, I'm not sure how much that contributes to the sound, but it is one of Furtado's best recordings. It does sound more like a regular band, though the instrumentation does vary from track to track. It's also some of the best original material that Furtado has come up with, after he has recorded some cover tunes in the past.
Among the guest Portlandians who appear are guitarist Scott Law, who has his own band, and bassist Tye North, formerly with the bluegrass jam band Leftover Salmon.
The opening piece, Toe the Line is one of the more electric on the CD. It combines a kind of old blues feel with rock energy. <<>>
The Willows Cry takes more of a singer-songwriter direction while Furtado hints at bluegrass with his Dobro-like sound. <<>>
Even folkier in sound is the title track Golden (Broken). But the sound and arrangement have some interesting departures from the expected. <<>>
As on most of Furtado's previous albums, there are instrumental pieces. One of the two is Portlandia, celebrating his hometown, mixes bluegrass-style banjo with a spacey steel guitar and lots of musical eclecticism. <<>>
One of the more interesting tracks is Can't Lie Down. It's a creative stylistic blend of Furtado's bluegrass banjo and bluesy slide guitar, with some vaguely apocalyptic lyrics. <<>>
If there is a kind of recurring lyrical sub-theme to this CD, it's one of departure or missing someone. A good example of that is Angelina which has an almost Latin-American or Spanish flavor to it. <<>>
In the Hollow is another of the CD's more musically interesting and inventive pieces. There are hints of Celtic or British Isles folk, plus Furtado's bluegrass-style banjo and a tricky rhythm that seems to turn in on itself. <<>>
Furtado's bluesy slide guitar side comes out on River Song which is also an intriguing stylistic mix with a kind of swampy blues sound with hints of Gospel. <<>>
Golden, Tony Furtado's new 15th CD, is one of the best in the career of this bluegrass banjo prodigy turned bluesy slide guitarist turned singer-songwriter. This CD best integrates the three facets of his style. It's the most consistent set of original songs Furtado had created for an album, the playing by Furtado and his guests is inventive and tasteful, and it features some of his best vocals. It's also pleasingly eclectic, with folk, blues, rock, and bluegrass influences mingling easily.
Our grade for audio quality is an A-minus. The mix is well-handled, but there are some instances of apparently intentionally distorted vocals. The dynamic range, how the CD handles the difference between loud and soft, is better than many CDs, but hardly audiophile.
I think Tony Furtado ought to be better known that he is. But perhaps the versatility that makes him so interesting makes it more difficult to categorize him. He certainly demonstrates that versatility on his new CD Golden.
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