2018Steve Gunn w/ Nathan Bowles
MarchDoors 8:30, Music 9:30 - $13adv / $15
Gunn’s roots in the underground run deep, from his days in GHQ to his collaborations with Black Twig Pickers and Mike Cooper. He’s toured and recorded with Michael Chapman, and released two remarkable duo albums with drummer John Truscinski. His solo ventures, emerging over the past decade and culminating most recently the highly-acclaimed Way Out Weather, have been pastoral, evocative affairs. Here he embraces his urban surroundings through a series of songs that fully showcase his extraordinary ability to match hooks to deftly constructed melodies. Gunn is a consummate guitarist, that rare fingerpicker who can harness the enigma of the American Primitive vernacular without lazily regurgitating it. His playing is inventive and full of personality. His instrumental virtuosity calls upon a vast library of technical skills at will, but he’s never showy — his riffs and runs are always in the service of the song at hand.
And what a pleasure to have this music presented to the wider public.
This song cycle melds thoughtful inquisitiveness with poetic reflection, fully embracing rhythmic uplift, allowing personal stories and impressions to live their own lives on their own terms. Gunn is more narrator than diarist; he pours real-life moments and real-life people into vibrant and evocative tales. Dreams and encounters spiral out – they form their own dramas and illuminate their own truths. Indeed, Eyes On The Lines works like a book of the finest short stories, its songs interlocking with an urgent necessity, forming an ever-questioning whole. In Gunn’s own words: “The music isn’t about me. It’s about characters, either real or fictional. It’s about images.”
And what are lines if not one of the foundational aspects of images? Lines on the road draw one’s attention to the lines comprising the landscape. Gunn’s music runs ahead and twists – like time, like the road itself. Guitar lines are highway lines are lines carved by the view out the window are the lines one waits in to get a quick meal on the way from one destination to another are lines one draws in the van to stay amused. It’s good to be out on the road and it’s good to be home, and each feeds into the other. This record sees lines run together and leap across one another.
He’s honest about the necessity of being comfortable in being lost. His music values the unknown, so it is always born of the present. We lose ourselves to find ourselves. With all of this comes humility. And gratitude. Listen to “Nature Driver,” a statement of thankfulness for the generosity of the plethora of kind souls who welcome travelers into their homes.
“Ancient Jules,” which opens the record, is a travel fantasy of a different sort. Built around a head-nodding motif, the song bobs and weaves its way through a tale which foregrounds the surprising joy that can come with a break – a deep sigh in the midst of an onrush, punctuated by the finest example of Gunn’s electric soloing to emerge yet. A song like “Conditions Wild” also rambles through strange clouds of roving. Interlocking strings, percussion, and vocals join in an irrepressible rush. This record is like that – the songs get lodged in one’s head because they’re catchy, but their atmosphere sends the mind reeling into memory and mystery.
These are songs you can take in quickly, but spend all the time in the world devouring. The very large and the very small are present in equal measure. The inability to categorize them within the avalanche of impotent diatribes that pass for categorization is a testament to their power.
Stories give us ways to discover meaning. They provide us with signposts – when we recognize our own lives within them, we clarify our existence. “Far from the world is the mystic fool,” Gunn sings on the opening track. The fool may be far from the world, but that doesn’t matter. The so-called fool is jacked in to the cosmos.
Matt Krefting Holyoke, MA 2016
He and his bandmates in the popular and critically acclaimed old-time group the Black Twig Pickers steep themselves in local traditions of Appalachian folk music and dance, very much a vital part of cultural life in their region of Virginia. As a member of the long-running improvisational drone outfit Pelt, Bowles focuses on the various sonic possibilities inherent in struck and bowed percussion—metal, wood, skin, or otherwise. When playing by his lonesome under his birthname, he prefers either minimal and hyper-nuanced percussive drone or tranced-out solo clawhammer banjo. He currently records and tours as part of Steve Gunn's band, the Outliners. Bowles has also recorded, collaborated, and performed with, Jack Rose, Hiss Golden Messenger, Black Dirt Oak, Scott Verrastro, Pigeons, Spiral Joy Band, and others.
On his exquisite third solo album, Whole & Cloven, Nathan again augments his mesmeric clawhammer banjo pieces with piano, percussion, and vocals. Instead of the programmatic place-based narratives of its predecessor Nansemond (PoB-16), Whole & Cloven offers a stoic meditation on absence, loss, and fragmentation, populating those experiential gaps—the weighty interstices and places in-between—with stillness and wonder. Straddling Appalachian string band music and avant-garde composition but beholden to neither idiom, Nathan proves himself heir to deconstructivist tradition-bearers like Henry Flynt and Jack Rose.