Tangier Morning

Stephen Bennett with Bill Gurley
Cimirron Rainbird Records

Bluegrass Unlimited August 89

Cimirron/Rainbird Records Cass-002

Stony Creek/Tangier Morning/Medley: Sheriff’s Ride-Sail Away Ladies/Song For Sue/ls This Mexico Or What?/ Greased Pig/Slipping On Ice/ Cowboy Dave/Stevezoid/Waltz (For My Mother)/Slipped Disc. This cassette tape came with a strip of paper across the front of the case that read, "NATIONAL FLAT-PICKIN' CHAMPION," and served notice that Stephen Bennett is one bad dude on the flattop. "Tangier Morning" certainly; fulfills the expectations that designation en-courages, but it's not just some ego-tripping hot-shots vanity album. This is an entertaining as well as impressive collection of deftly-performed music, much of it original, that em-phasizes the musicality of the guitar in a variety of genres-traditional, jazz, new acoustic music and ballads and waltzes. This Virginia native's debut recording reveals an eclectic, contemporary sensibility, both in his fluid variations on standards like "Stony Creek (sic)" and "Sail Away Ladies," and in his own compositions. Elements of electric country-boogie guitar surface in the acoustic country-funk of "Greased Pig," while "Is This Mexico…?" suggests the influence Al Di Meola in its sizzling Spanish-flavored interlude and even offers a whiff of Leo Kottke. Other numbers, like the title track and "Stevezoid," recall the power and imagination of Mark O'Connor and the lyricism of Rues Barenberg. The traditional medley captures Doc Watson's drive and incisiveness. Bennett plays in an insistently expressive manner with a precise, vigorous attack and flawless timing. A firm, well-developed touch and control over the duration and sustain of his notes contributes to Bennett’s steely, tone. He bends, stretches and wrings out simple, direct melodies on the ballads and can fire off convoluted phrases that sting together all manner of syncopated, hammered-on and pulled off single notes, harmonics and crosspicked arpeggios in diminished runs, chromatic scales and suspended, major and minor ninth chords on the faster tunes. If one were to offer any criticism, it would be that his playing sometimes seems studied and relies too heavily on mechanical-sounding scalar patterns. For the most part, Bennett's accompaniment is quite spare, with just rhythm guitar, bass, and sometimes mandolin or piano, yet the sound remains full and satisfying. While Bennett occasionally allows for fiddle or mandolin solos, the spotlight focuses primarily on his guitar, arranged from time to time in double-tracked harmonies. Tom Espinola's cerebral mandolin playing is inventively eccentric in the manner of Barry Mitterhof or Andy Statman on "Stony Creek" and Butch Robbins' "Slipping On Ice," while his rhythm chop is more a percussive slap. Especially tasteful is Espinola's loping, ringing mandolin shuffle in the background on the title tune. The whole band goes to town on the last cut, en exuberant version of Bennv Goodman/Charlie Christian’s "Slipped Disc." It’s a great fretboard workout that adds drum support and also features rollicking honky-tonk piano and poppin’ electric bass. In all, "Tangier Morning" is one fine ef-fort that deserves the attention of serious students of guitar and guitar music enthusiasts. The recording quality is crystal clear, though perhaps without a lot of lower-midrange warmth. Unfortunately, the review copy suffered from some dropouts and left this reviewer hankering for a good vinyl or CD pressing. Maybe next time. (Cimirron/Rainbird Records, 607 Piney Pt. Road, Yorktown, VA 23692)

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