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    Phil Keaggy: A Lifetime of Joyful Noises, Part Three

    Issue 148

    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 elements of folk, pop, fusion jazz, classical, hymns, show tunes, new age music and more into both his guitar playing and writing. Part Two (Issue 146) covered the crystallization of these influences into some of his most cohesive and highly regarded releases, garnering Keaggy both Grammy nominations and GMA (Gospel Music Association) Dove Award wins.

    Coming off his Grammy-nominated and hard rocking Crimson and Blue, with the secular version of Blue released concurrently in 1993, Phil Keaggy was on a creative and commercial roll. As often happens, record labels like to strike with a commercial follow-up while the proverbial iron is still hot. Phil Keaggy was swayed by executives at his label, Sparrow/UMG, to record his next album, True Believers, with British ex-Babe Ruth songwriter and producer Alan Shacklock. Shacklock, who wrote the title track, promised to have Keaggy’s next record “launch you for the next ten years,” and with Shacklock writing or co-writing 40 percent of the songs on True Believers, the project definitely went in a much more polished direction.

    While Keaggy’s guitar playing and singing on True Believers remains outstanding, especially with his solos on “Salvation Army Band” and the heartfelt “The Survivor,” there is a forced feel to Shacklock’s heavy production hand akin to when Phil Spector stamped his Wall of Sound imprint on the Beatles’ Let It Be. Keaggy himself admits, in retrospect, that it probably wasn’t the best direction for him to go musically, although he still likes some of the songs and performs them in concert. In spite of the production, the quality of the songs and performances shine through.

     

    Keaggy also performs an unusual Celtic rendition of the traditional hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” replete with U2-type rhythms, bagpipes, rocking riffs, and psychedelic lead guitar lines at the end.

     

    “The Survivor,” a tribute to attempted saline abortion survivor Gianna Jensen, is a tour de force extended-length track that starts as an acoustic ballad and builds to a rocking crescendo, similar to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

     

    True Believers became a big commercial success, which undoubtedly pleased Shacklock (who won an EMI songwriting award for the title song) and Sparrow. On a concurrent note of personal musical vindication, Guitar Player readers, wowed by his simultaneously elegiac, introspective, and celebratory instrumental masterpiece Beyond Nature, voted Phil Keaggy the Number Two Best Acoustic Fingerstyle Guitarist in 1995.

    1995 also saw the release of Time, a 2-CD greatest hits compilation that included Glass Harp tracks and some previously unreleased versions of songs, such as a live performance of “Shouts of Joy” from Crimson and Blue and a live concert Glass Harp recording of “Do Lord.”

    In the early 1990s, DIY digital multitrack recording capability hit the market in the form of the ADAT system. Created by Alesis (hence, A.D.A.T. = Alesis Digital Audio Tape), it was an 8-track system that utilized helical-scan heads comparable to VHS tape recorders to record 44.1 kHz CD-quality audio. The ADAT machines had an accurate electronic sync system that could chain together up to 16 recorders, thus capable of providing up to 128 discrete tracks. (Later ADAT versions could record in 48 kHz as well as 44.1.)

    Utilizing S-VHS cassettes, the ADAT format became an indispensable tool for artists like Phil Keaggy, who already had experience engineering and mixing in his home studio, but had been thwarted by budget and equipment limitations in his ability to expand and upgrade to a higher-quality production level.

    Once armed with an ADAT system, Phil Keaggy’s already-prolific catalog would grow exponentially, as a growing subcategory of original and arranged instrumental works and collaborations would continue to flourish alongside his conventional songwriting. His home studio, which he has christened “Kegworth Studios,” has since been the source for the bulk of Phil Keaggy’s recorded output.

    Following True Believers, Keaggy’s subsequent concerts became the genesis of continued performance evolutions of some of its songs, like “Salvation Army Band.” Meanwhile, Keaggy found himself in a lyrical songwriting rut, but with a cornucopia of musical ideas. These instrumental compositions would form the nucleus of the electric 220 (1996), the Dove Award-winning Acoustic Sketches (1996), and On The Fly (1997).

    1996’s 220 featured Phil Keaggy with Phil Madeira on keys and some friends, including Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard and a debut on drums by then 9-year-old Ian Keaggy. 220 picks up the hard rock vibe where Crimson and Blue left off. Opening with the Steve Winwood/Traffic influenced “Animal,” 220 is a treasure trove of Keaggy’s rock lead guitar playing, complete with bluesy bends, shredding flurries, and jazzy chromaticism. Using few effects, Keaggy’s raw, blistering rock distortion tones hearken back to both Crimson and Blue as well as his earlier Glass Harp material. 220 reached Number 21 on the Billboard Christian Music chart, which can be attributed primarily to the strength of Keaggy’s reputation, since none of the songs have any lyrics or direct Christian themes.

     

    Acoustic Sketches remains a personal favorite of Keaggy’s. In addition to winning a Dove Award, Acoustic Sketches showed Keaggy that an entire album of solo acoustic guitar devoid of orchestration could become popular with his audience.

    He described it in an interview with Crosswalk.com:

    “I don’t think it’s on anyone’s top-selling list, but it’s an album that has meant a lot to people, whether they are musicians or not. It’s an album that I’m very happy to hand out to people. I’ve entered a new season of instrumental songwriting that’s really exploded since 220 and Acoustic Sketches. I ended up doing On the Fly, which was as easy as breathing. That album came about so easily, with a lot of joy. There’s a lot of freedom expressed on that album, both on acoustic and electric.”

    “Del’s Bells” is an example of the intimate ambience evoked on Acoustic Sketches. The Del is generally thought to reference luthier Del Langejans, who custom built the guitar Keaggy played on many of the tracks. On his Bandcamp page, Keaggy recalled these notes on the recording of Acoustic Sketches:

    “Back when I was exploring new ways to use my Lexicon JamMan [looper pedal – Ed.] in the mid ’90s, and still recording to an analog 8-track reel to reel machine, I plugged my Langejans guitar into the JamMan and out of the JamMan straight into the input of channel 1 and 2 of the Tascam 388/ 8-track machine. I just started making stuff up and looping over the phrases.

    Here’s a rundown of the obvious tracks that were spontaneous:

    Tracks 1,2,4,6,7,10,13,14,16,17 and 18 were improvised on the spot.

    The other tracks were formulated and constructed beforehand.

    Track 11, ‘Swing Low,’ was actually recorded during my Beyond Nature sessions but we all agreed it didn’t fit that project, and it feels more at home here.

    Tracks 21, 22 and 23 are bonus live recordings put here, hopefully for your listening pleasure – and mine as well, as I enjoyed hearing these live recordings, especially ‘Nellie’s Tune!’”

    Well, there you have it – Freehand came about a few years later with an assortment of improvised pieces and worked out songs as well, similar to this collection.

    Cheers – Phil Keaggy.”

     

    On The Fly straddled the electric/acoustic dichotomy of Keaggy’s musical directions by incorporating both of those styles. However, his electric side on this record showcases more jazz fusion and ambient leanings, with a greater use of reverb, eBow [a hand-held electronic guitar sustaining device – Ed.], and other processing like on his 1987 instrumental album The Wind and The Wheat.

    The six-part suite, “The Way Of The Pilgrim,” is separated into 1) Vision, 2) Longing, 3) Pursuit, 4) The Journey, 5) The Return, and 6) Rest, and is reminiscent of the style of Beyond Nature, highlighted by blending classical, folk, and jazz fingerpicking elements into solo acoustic guitar performances.

    The 24:25 long “The Sojourner” brings both elements together, beginning with acoustic and then adding electric guitar.

    1998’s self-titled Phil Keaggy returned to the rawer guitar and Beatle-esque sounds of Sunday’s Child and Crimson and Blue. “Days Like You” and several other songs are very much in the vein of his version of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” from Blue.

     

    The Celtic-flavored “Above All Things” took some of the U2-flavored and marching drum elements of True Believers into a more intimate realm of subtlety that eschewed Alan Shacklock’s bombastic flourishes for something, ironically, more in the arena of Paul McCartney pieces like, “Mull of Kintyre.”

     

    By this time, Phil Keaggy was perfectly comfortable adapting his vast catalog of songs into solo acoustic performance arrangements, as this solo version of “Above All Things” demonstrates.

     

    It is at this point where space reasons necessitate the omission of some releases, as Keaggy’s prolific output drastically increased beyond the scope of responsible coverage, and some of the recordings are out of print or only available from his Bandcamp site. For example, in 1999 Keaggy would release Premium Jams, which consists of outtakes and spontaneous jam sessions recorded during the making of Crimson and Blue. Additionally, Phil Keaggy released a four-part series of primarily instrumental releases under the theme “Music To Paint By” under the subtitles “Electric Blue”, “Still Life”, “Brushstrokes” and “Splash.” As Keaggy also released numerous collaborations and cover records (which will be covered in the next installment), the remainder of Part Three will focus solely on his solo releases that are commercially available.

    With so many secular artists recording Christmas records, it would be remiss for Contemporary Christian music’s premier guitar virtuoso not to have one as well! 1999 saw the release of Majesty and Wonder: An Instrumental Christmas, which is billed, “Phil Keaggy with the London Festival Orchestra.” Not unlike the Crimson and Blue/Blue dual releases of partially different versions for different demographic audiences, Majesty and Wonder received the similar treatment, as Keaggy noted in Crosswalk.com:

    “Judith Volz, who does A&R for me, worked out a situation for me to do some albums for Unison. The first one I did for them was the Christmas album. I finished it in June of ’98, but it wasn’t released last year. My good buddy John Schroeder at Fingerstyle [Guitar] magazine got permission for the fan club to do a limited release of that Christmas album. We called it A Christmas Gift. It’s the Unison album with a different sequence and artwork. It opens up with “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” which is done very tongue-in-cheek. It has a kind of ukulele-ish sound at the beginning. I’m playing a three-quarter size classical, a little student model. That’s the same guitar I played on “A Sign Came Through a Window.” It sounds like rubber bands being played.

    The album went through some major changes and the title was changed to Majesty & Wonder, which was released this year. The album is produced by me, and I play all the instruments on it. I play quite a variety of guitars: the Tacoma Papoose, Langejans classical, Langejans Grand Concert, the Olson Acoustic SJ – I’ve been playing that guitar for fourteen years, and I still love it. I love Langejans’ guitars too.”

     

    A Christmas Gift would subsequently be retitled An Angel’s Christmas.

    Part Four of “Phil Keaggy: A Lifetime of Joyful Noises” will cover his recorded output in the 21st century as a solo artist, with a subsequent installment on his numerous collaboration albums, cover albums, and insights as to why he is held in such high regard by his musical peers and other guitarists around the world.

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