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    Phil Keaggy: A Lifetime of Joyful Noises, Part Four

    Issue 149

    In Part One (Issue 145), we looked at Phil Keaggy’s musical beginnings with power trio Glass Harp, and his early solo recordings, which showed his skills expanding beyond hard rock music to incorporate many more varied musical elements. Part Two (Issue 146) covered the crystallization of these influences into some of his most cohesive and highly regarded releases, and Part Three (Issue 148) covered his recordings from the early 1990s to the end of the 20th century.

    Going into the year 2000, some of Keaggy’s Instrumental releases of note include Lights Of Madrid, in which he spotlighted his rarely-heard-before flamenco skills, In The Quiet Hours, Cinemascapes, Zion, Freehand – Acoustic Sketches II, Roundabout, Jammed! and Hymnsongs.

    Lights Of Madrid would go on to notch another Gospel Music Association (GMA) Dove Award win for Keaggy, and as a nod to his burgeoning guitar-playing fan base, include transcriptions in tablature, with .pdf file access for anyone wishing to learn how Phil played the songs. “Corazon de Fuego,” in particular, showed how immersed Keaggy had delved into getting in touch with his inner Carlos Montoya.

     

    In The Quiet Hours and Cinemascapes both contained introspective short pieces and snippets that could conceivably serve as film soundtrack works. Some of the selections were re-recorded versions of tracks from the Music To Paint By tetralogy.

    As a noted artist who promotes the work of world-class luthiers who are also fellow Christians, like James Olson and Del Langejans, Zion was recorded and released as a fundraising platform for luthier Ken Hoover of Zion Guitars, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. (Hoover passed away in 2020.) Hoover created a custom signature Phil Keaggy model, which he used on Zion in addition to several stock Zion guitars.

     

    A Zion Primera guitar, similar to the custom Phil Keaggy model, of which only 10 were made. From the Zion Guitar Technology website.

    A Zion Primera guitar, similar to the custom Phil Keaggy model, of which only 10 were made. From the Zion Guitar Technology website.

     

     

    Much of Zion consisted of new versions of songs from The Wind and The Wheat. One track that was new was “Yet Will I Trust.”

    https://soundcloud.com/ken-hoover-1/yet-will-i-trust

    Freehand – Acoustic Sketches II shows a greater exploratory bent into the use of pre-recorded percussion loops, to serve as the backing for some ripping solos on songs like “Shigeo” and “Chester’s Tree.” Meanwhile, “Bela,” the bluesy “Sign Language,” “Renaissance Boy,” and “Cinema Paradiso” weave overlaying passages of strums, arpeggios, and partial chords against loops of earlier playing, while the solos sail above.

    “Cajon Pass” begins as a classical-inspired piece in the vein of “Beyond Nature,” and then picks up the mood as Keaggy begins to pick more aggressively, channeling the flamenco of Lights of Madrid, with loops of previous passages serving as the backing for some complex acoustic solos that sound like a cross between John McLaughlin and Rodrigo y Gabriela.

     

    Roundabout continues Keaggy’s looping experiments, this time more from a more “produced” perspective, with loops pieced together like a puzzle from snatches of guitar improvisations recorded during soundchecks, along with added loops of percussion and other instruments. Unlike on Freehand, Keaggy plays electric guitar as well for his solos, making for an unusual addition to his catalog.

    In a Guitar Player interview, Keaggy explained that the songs “began with me messing around at my soundchecks before the audience came in. I’d typically just come from taking a nap at a hotel, so my mind would be fresh, and I’d improvise loops that would be recorded by my soundman, Brian Persall. The loops have rhythm, lead, bass, and even percussion parts along with textures created using an eBow [a hand-held device that produces sustain when held over the strings of an electric guitar – Ed.] and placing plastic between the strings, which creates koto, banjo, and steel drum-type sounds. After I returned home, I imported all of the loops into Pro Tools and edited some sections, but no overdubs were added either after the initial recording or while in the studio. If a song was too long, I might edit some measures or repeated sections to make it a little less repetitious, or maybe move some bits around.”

     

    Jammed! saw a return to the Crimson and Blue and 220 era of rawer electric guitar solos, with tracks culled from the previous Premium Jams series as well as Keaggy’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “Joyphil.” “Kegworth Speaks” is a good example of the loose funk vibe endemic of a lot of Jammed! with a strong Glass Harp influence.

     

    Hymnsongs, ironically, was intended by Keaggy to be his first full album of updated renditions of sacred hymns, with emphasis on the words, a motif that had shown up repeatedly in his past records. However, his record label, Word, pressured him to release Hymnsongs as an instrumental album to capitalize on his market reputation as a steady-selling instrumental artist. Keaggy would part ways with Word soon after.

    Once again, Hymnsongs displays Keaggy’s ease at both electric and acoustic guitar textures sitting comfortably together to share, exchange, and harmonize on solos.

    https://www.invubu.com/music/show/song/Phil-Keaggy/Jerusalem.html

    Vocal releases during this period include Inseparable (2000), which features some of Keaggy’s C.S. Lewis-inspired lyrics regarding faith, as well as an excellent cover of Paul McCartney’s “Motor Of Love.”

     

    “Chalice” takes a perspective on faith and sacrament not unlike that of C.S. Lewis in his book, Mere Christianity:

    The way to find ourselves is in the fires of our sorrow
    Do we look around, expect to see the wind?
    Could we prevent the trials that we face with each tomorrow?
    Can’t we see this is the world we’re living in?

    When suffering restores us, burns away the empty shallowness
    And softening the heart,
    To be broken bread and poured out wine.
    When it rains it pours, turns a life into a chalice;
    There to nourish every soul one at a time.

    Dream Again (2006) saw Keaggy in more of a Bob Dylan mode, especially with “Redemption” and its intricate, half-spoken lyric structure. The usually flashy guitar solos are this time restrained and tasteful. Dream Again is also somewhat of a family affair, with son Ian co-writing and joining in on guitar, and daughter Alicia duetting with Phil on the Caribbean steel-drum flavored “Micah 6:8.”

     

    In 2007, Phil Keaggy released another solo acoustic instrumental record, The Song Within. It consisted of rearrangements of previously recorded Keaggy originals; for example, “Addison’s Talk” is an updated version of Beyond Nature’s “Addison’s Walk,” while “What A Day” is reworked into “Water Day.”

    Keaggy reportedly had just acquired a McPherson acoustic guitar, which inspired the making of The Song Within. Most notable for their offset sound hole, which allows more of the soundboard top to vibrate freely, thus creating richer overtones, McPherson guitars are played by artists including Brad Paisley, Shawn Tubbs, Vince Gill, David Crosby, and others.

     

    Phil Keaggy playing a McPherson guitar. From the McPherson website.

    Phil Keaggy playing a McPherson guitar. From the McPherson website.

     

     

    2007 also saw Keaggy releasing a 30th anniversary remix of The Master and The Musician. It includes alternate takes, voluminous extra material and interview commentary about each song from Keaggy himself. The following year Keaggy released the long-awaited instrumental sequel album: Phantasmagorical: Master & Musician 2.

    When compared to its 1977 predecessor, Phantasmagorical: Master & Musician 2 shows an artist who has matured and expanded in his vision and craft with greater artistic focus, while losing none of their original spark. Flamenco influences creep into “The Wind And The Beat.” “Lazy K” hearkens back to Beyond Nature with its classical fingerpicking and woodwinds counterpoint, while “Father And Son” echoes some of the melodicism of Acoustic Sketches. The more ornate instrumentation colors that Keaggy can sometimes play are muted in favor of stronger and more defined melodic lines, with less meandering.

     

    All At Once (2016) is Keaggy’s latest solo album to date that has vocals. Returning to a band format, Keaggy’s guests include drummer Chester Thompson (Genesis, Santana, Zappa), Al Kooper (Blues Project, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Dylan), singer Ashley Cleveland, and old friends Rick Cua (bass) and Phil Madeira (keys).

    With his vocals stronger than ever with nary a sign of age, All At Once shows Keaggy having fun playing blues-rock, with songs like “Stay Home Baby,” “Undertow,” “My Guitar’s In Love,” and the B.B. King-influenced minor key slow blues, “Call the Doctor.”

     

    Keaggy channels the blues licks of his hero, Mike Bloomfield, and trades vocals with spitfire gospel shouter and co-writer Ashley Cleveland on the standout track, “Ezekiel.”

    Calling to mind Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Staples Singers, and contemporary gospel-based singer/guitar virtuosos like Robert Randolph, “Ezekiel” opens with bluesy guitar before launching into Ashley Cleveland’s opening lines, chock full of Old Testament foreboding:

    The hand of the Lord came on me
    And led me down into a valley.
    A valley of bones, brittle and dry,
    He spoke to me as we walked on by…

    Cleveland’s lyrics reference the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 37, with the reference to dry bones recalling the prophecy that God will restore the bones to life, restoring Israel – a prophetic reference to the coming of the Messiah, which is fulfilled in the New Testament through Jesus.

     

     

    Keaggy’s latest solo release is Acoustic Sketches 3 (2021). The technical details, which involve Keaggy eschewing his usual JamMan looper pedal in favor of a Pigtronix Infinity Looper, will be covered more in detail in the forthcoming installment. Acoustic Sketches 3 features lush guitar textures with more straight-ahead jazz influences, such as what might be played by Joe Pass or Kenny Burrell, as opposed to the jazz fusion shredding that Keaggy has frequently favored since the 1970s.

    “Remembering Job” and “Jam In The Side Pocket” are some examples of this influence, with plenty of arpeggiated extended jazz chords and loops reminiscent of typical jazz walking bass lines, against which the solo is played with jazzy chromaticism.

    “Jam In The Side Pocket” starts off with a 5/4 Dave Brubeck “Take Five” rhythm, and the bebop guitar lines Keaggy lays down could have come from Herb Ellis or Tal Farlow.

     

     

    The next and final installment in this series will look at Phil Keaggy’s numerous collaboration albums, including some cover songs, and an insight into why he is held in such high regard by guitarists and fellow musicians around the world.

    Header image from phikkeaggy.com.

    3 comments on “Phil Keaggy: A Lifetime of Joyful Noises, Part Four”

    1. Thank you for this series. All at Once was released on double vinyl, mastered by Bernie Grundman. It sounds incredible! Phil’s entire catalog is monumentally essential listening. I wish Octave would record him. Godspeed.

    2. Thank you for your coverage of such a gifted musician. The opening instrumental on The Wind and the Wheat is so majestic and uplifting that I have savored that melody in my mind as long as I can remember. Without trying to sound dramatic, it has become a part of me! So is it etched within my soul.

      I hope your wonderful articles will lead to maybe some new Phil Keaggy fans. Thanks again!

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