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Richard Leo Johnson and Gregg Bendian - Who Knew Charlie Shoe?

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Artist: Richard Leo Johnson and Gregg Bendian

Album: Who Knew Charlie Shoe?

Label: Cuneiform

Review date: Apr. 10, 2008

A few years back, guitarist Richard Leo Johnson came across a 1930s National steel guitar with a name hand-etched into its metal body. That finding precipitated the imagination/ creation/ discovery of one Vernon McAlister, the guitar’s original owner. It also led Johnson, already an articulate and inventive player, into a place where all kinds of historical guitar Americana could meet with experimentation and various extended techniques.

Who Knew Charlie Shoe? builds on the tradition Johnson established in his 2006 release The Legend of Vernon McAlister, this time positing a new character – Mr. Shoe, a home-grown Arkansas guitar virtuoso with Asperger’s syndrome – and bringing along percussionist Gregg Bendian to play the part of Charlie’s buddy and musical partner, Junk Fish. The story line, as presented in the playful and detailed liner notes, is built upon the existence of field recordings documenting performances by Charlie with his cheap guitars and Junk with his battery of found objects as percussion instruments.

As for the music, it is nothing short of delightful. The legend says that Charlie was deeply influenced in his youth by a brief chance encounter with steel guitarist McAlister, and it shows in bluesy, rag-timey melodies – often played with a slide – and in evocative Appalachian mountain-style modal arpeggiations. (Charlie also met Chet Atkins in a music store once, and apparently picked up some fingerpicking rolls from the master.)

Real-world reference points for this music might be the usual suspects at the heart of exploratory American finger-style guitar: Fahey, Kottke and Basho. But there are other currents, too: a free-wheeling, rhythmically driving approach to improvisation and extended pattern that might sometimes remind one of Brazilian guitar monster Bola Sete; a spaciousness to the melodic conception that allows nostalgic and bittersweet found sounds like train whistles, insect buzzes and birdsong, church bells, radio noise, and spoken words a subtle – but important – place in the music.

Johnson’s guitar adventures are, of course, a big part of the story. But Bendian’s lyrical and narrative percussion is no less essential. Whether splashing out rhythms on the surface tension of a tub full of water or banging on old junk metal, he helps brings a sweetly poetic grace to the overall mood. In pieces like “Where the River Meets the Hills,” where Johnson’s melodies arrive at a limpid lyricism, Bendian plays with restraint and a rich timbral palette. But he also unleashes some thunder on “Junk Fish Out of Water,” a noise-and-art prog-rock solo piece played on pull-down aluminum stairs(!). (Progressive rock is yet another current here: “Superman,” with its shifting time and tempo and its gamelan-like shimmer, comes off a bit like an acoustic tribute to ’80s King Crimson. And Bendian even sends out a greeting to ’70s Crimson percussion shaman Jamie Muir in the liner notes.)

Harnessing all these strains in appealing ways, this album plays like poetry, hinting with good-natured gentleness – and a trace of melancholy – that perhaps some of the almost-lost sounds of American music might actually be created new in the imagination.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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