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Phil Keaggy – A Lifetime of Making Joyful Noises, Part One

Issue 145

“Use guitars to reinforce your Hallelujahs!” Psalm 33:2, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language

Guitarists who have developed distinctly separate and unique voices on both the acoustic and electric guitar are few and far between, since many approach playing these instruments in a similar fashion, whether plugged or unplugged. Among those with recognizably different approaches:

Jorma Kaukonen is renowned for his acoustic Piedmont Blues fingerpicking, as well as his fuzz-fueled acid rock electric stylings with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.

Richard Thompson has an instantly recognizable bagpipe drone sound on acoustic, and a singular Celtic electric sound, free of blues-oriented flatted fifths and with an “out-of phase” Strat tone that Mark Knopfler borrowed for Dire Straits, and that Eric Clapton, Steve Miller, Robert Cray and many others have appropriated.

However, when it comes to someone who wowed no less a famously dismissive critic than Mike Bloomfield on electric, while pioneering an entire acoustic guitar fingerpicking genre incorporating looping and the use of multiple partial capos, only Phil Keaggy fits the bill. In addition, Keaggy is one of the founders of Christian rock (at least the jam band version), as well as being a revered songwriter and a vocalist who has borne repeated comparisons to Paul McCartney.

Yet, for all of his accomplishments, he has a loyal following among classic rock, new age, and contemporary Christian music (CCM) listeners but is paradoxically almost unknown to many fans of praise and worship music (i.e., Hillsong, Elevation, Bethel), and is routinely overlooked by younger generations of fans who are entranced by arguably lesser guitar talents in the genre, like Lincoln Brewster or Mateus Asato. As Keaggy’s staggering output incorporates a catalog of around 60 albums, this retrospective will feature just a few highlights.

Phil Keaggy’s early success began in the late 1960s with Glass Harp, an Ohio-based power trio that drew favorable critical similarities to the James Gang, and frequently performed with such megastar acts of the 1970s like Chicago, Grand Funk Railroad, Alice Cooper, Yes and Traffic.

Perhaps the best recorded example of Glass Harp’s musical wizardry is Live! At Carnegie Hall. A showcase for Keaggy’s improvisational stylings, punctuated by the excellent rhythm section of John Sferra (drums) and Dan Pecchio (bass), Live! At Carnegie Hall highlighted one of Keaggy’s earliest faith songs, “Do Lord,” which still remains a Keaggy live concert favorite.

 

Glass Harp’s mixture of hard rock, pop, and jazz-influenced jam band excursions invited comparisons to Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. While acknowledgement of Keaggy’s guitar prowess from Hendrix remains an unverified legend, Keaggy’s guitar hero, Mike Bloomfield, recognized him in Chicago and personally complimented Phil with, “aren’t you the little guy from Glass Harp that played his ass off?” in typical Bloomfield wise guy fashion. Keaggy still recalls the meeting as one of his biggest self-validation moments as a musician.

As his faith grew stronger, Keaggy felt the call to devote his efforts exclusively to Christ-based music, amicably leaving Glass Harp in 1972 to pursue a solo career. Keaggy would subsequently work with 2nd Chapter of Acts and other artists from the Love Inn music community in upstate New York, where he met Phil Madeira, Lynn Nichols, and other musicians with whom he would work repeatedly over the next four decades.

Keaggy’s first solo release was What A Day (1973), followed by Love Broke Thru (1977). This was before contemporary Christian music as a genre had been established, so records from the era were categorized as “Jesus Music,” later to be called “Christian Rock” when bands like Petra and Stryper subsequently followed Keaggy’s trailblazing path.

What A Day found Keaggy emulating Paul McCartney, one of his main songwriting and singing inspirations, in playing all of the instruments, similarly to how the former Beatle did likewise on his McCartney solo album.

During the 1970s, the commercial success of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell by Steven Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak were among the first works pertaining to Jesus and Christianity to receive radio airplay. The influence of these works can be heard on What A Day, with some show tune-type of arrangements that are somewhat awkwardly couched between Keaggy’s more familiar singer-songwriter compositions. “Walking With Our Lord” is an example of the Godspell approach to a song in a show tune or musical theater style, rather than a rock arrangement more akin to Glass Harp.

 

“Your Love Broke Through” was written by Keith Green and Randy Stonehill, both contemporaries of Keaggy and co-pioneers in what would become CCM. Although the song is considered one of Green’s signature tunes, Keaggy was the first to record and release it – at Green’s insistence. While the two were friends who mutually respected each other’s musical gifts, it is possible that Green saw how Keaggy’s performance of the song could instill an imprimatur of musical legitimacy to the “Jesus Rock” movement, a genre that had until then been derided by critics as amateurish and sub-par in comparison to their professional secular music and musicians. Stonehill is a singer-songwriter with whom Keaggy would continue to perform and record with periodically and as recently as 2019.

 

As probably the highest-profile rock musician at the time to renounce secular music for Christian music (Little Richard and Al Green would both return to performing and recording secular albums), Keaggy commanded the respect of his peers, so Love Broke Thru includes the rhythm section of Lee Sklar on bass and Jim Gordon on drums, with Larry Knechtel on keys and Keaggy handling all guitars and vocals, plus orchestral arrangements from Michael Omartian. It also features “As The Ruin Falls,” originally a poem by C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series and one of literature’s most highly regarded Christian-oriented authors, whose writings would continue to inspire Keaggy’s later compositions.

“Time,” which has become a Keaggy classic and live favorite, was also first released on Love Broke Thru. Some fans consider this guitar solo epic to be the CCM equivalent to other extended-length guitar-centric songs of the era like Eric Clapton’s “Layla” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”

 

Emerging was released in 1977, and was the debut of the first Phil Keaggy Band album, which featured Madeira and Nichols, who would go on to tour with him into the 1990s. The song “Take A Look Around” shows the influence of groups like Chicago, with its brass-sounding arrangements (played on an array of guitars), while Keaggy’s lead guitar lines and solos provide counterpoint to the vocals and faux horns in a manner reminiscent of Chicago guitarist Terry Kath.

 

The all-instrumental The Master and The Musician (1978), which had an expanded 30th anniversary release in 2008, is a compilation of Keaggy’s musical influences and directions, along with some early hints of the classical and New Age acoustic guitar fingerpicking stylings that he would become known for by an entirely separate generation of musicians some 15 – 20 years later. Stylistically, the record is all over the map, but it somehow holds together and has become one of the most critically-acclaimed records in Keaggy’s catalog. Some examples of the styles showcased in The Master and The Musician include:

  • “Pilgrim’s Flight” – Renaissance, Elizabethan, classical
  • “Golden Halls” – prog rock
  • “Mouthpiece” – Bobby McFerrin-style multi-tracked a cappella singing
  • “Follow Me Up” – fusion jazz

As the best-selling record in Keaggy’s career, TMATM appealed to fans of acoustic guitar virtuosos like Windham Hill Records’ Michael Hedges and Alex De Grassi, as well as fusion jazz and alternative FM radio deejays, camps with no previous awareness of Keaggy’s Christian rock foundations. These ancillary music markets would become part of his broader fan base, which has continued to follow and support his music since he became an unsigned independent artist in 2008.

This version of “Pilgrim’s Flight” is excerpted from an instructional guitar playing VHS tape Keaggy made in the late 1990s, released as a DVD in 2006:

 

From the close-ups of his hands, it is apparent that Keaggy’s is missing the middle finger of his right hand, a disability shared with and mutually overcome by the Grateful Dead’s lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia. In Keaggy’s case, it was the result of an accident when he was four years old. He and Garcia have independently both joked about their missing fingers as the reason why they were guitarists and not pianists.

The 30th anniversary re-release of TMATM also includes insightful interview comments from Keaggy on the inspirations and production for each song.

The 1980s would see Keaggy and his family moving from New York, first to Kansas, and then to California in 1983. Signed to Sparrow Records, the CCM label owned by Universal Music Group, Keaggy would continue to hone his two distinct musical identities: electric shred guitar Christian rocker and introspective acoustic guitar instrumentalist.

Ph’lip Side (1980) had a double-sided album jacket with a close-up of a mustachioed Keaggy and an acoustic Martin dreadnought guitar against a blue background on one side and his Gibson Les Paul against a magenta background on the “flip” side. The LP featured all-acoustic works on “This Side” and electric songs on “That Side.”

“Sunday School” showcases a muscular, bluesy side of Keaggy’s electric persona, harkening back to his roots as a fan of Bloomfield, Clapton and Jeff Beck.

 

“Little Ones” is the standout acoustic track, noteworthy for its advocacy on behalf of the pro-life movement. The sparse guitar and vocal arrangement puts the emphasis on the lyrics, while Keaggy’s impassioned vocal and classical guitar-inspired passages are touchingly evocative.

 

Ph’lip Side also was one of the earliest engineering projects by a then-unknown Jack Joseph Puig, who would go on to produce Phil Keaggy and Sunday’s Child in 1988 and whose Grammy wins, surprisingly, have all been for his work in the CCM arena, his multi-platinum records with John Mayer, Eric Clapton, and numerous other artists notwithstanding. There is a punch to the sound of Keaggy’s records with Puig that grabs a listener’s attention in a way that differs from his other records, which are more inviting and less of a yank by the collar. The lessons developed in recording Keaggy’s acoustic and electric sides with such precision and sonic energy would serve Puig well in his later projects with John Mayer, who equally is adept at both acoustic and electric guitar stylings.

Interestingly, Keaggy’s song, “Just a Moment Away” was co-written by King’s X bassist and lead vocalist Dug Pinnick. As a prog-rock power trio with Christian-themed songs, King’s X is very much the spiritual and musical inheritor of the Glass Harp legacy. A number of similarities between Keaggy’s work with Glass Harp and Ty Tabor’s guitar approach in King’s X can be heard.

Keaggy’s 1981 follow-up, Town to Town, featured the concert favorite “Let Everything Else Go” and also included an arrangement of the hymn “Rise Up O Men of God,” the first of a number of traditional hymns that Keaggy would include on subsequent albums, both in acoustic and electric arrangements.

 

The indefatigable Keaggy would release Play Thru Me in 1982. The fusion jazz elements are more prominent here. “Happy” showcases a rare slide guitar performance from Keaggy. The song is full of odd rhythms, Stanley Clarke-style funk-jazz bass, and Al DiMeola-inspired guitar lines in addition to Keaggy’s slide parts.

Part Two of this article will cover Keaggy’s work going into the 1990s, which includes some of his most significant and memorable recordings, the pinnacle of his C.S. Lewis and Vaughan Williams-inspired works, and the start of what would be a series of Easter Egg gems: cover songs, rearranged to showcase Keaggy’s vocals and guitar work, of some of his radio favorites.

8 comments on “Phil Keaggy – A Lifetime of Making Joyful Noises, Part One”

  1. I was a junior in high school when I saw Phil Keaggy at Metrochurch in Edmond, Oklahoma. Concerts have always been my passion and I figured out quickly that my parents would let me go to a show at church before they’d let me see Foghat or Head East in an arena–and it was cheaper! Ted Nugent was verboten, but Phil Keaggy gave me a chance to rock out around the house.

    Ten years later, working my way through college in a record store, I put on Sunday’s Child. It’s a great sounding pop album and I sold a few of them to kids like me, who wanted to bring some rock and roll into their conservative religious homes under their parents’ noses. Some things never change!

    That goes for Phil Keaggy, too. The music’s still good. He’s always been good.

    1. Well said. The Sunday’s Child record will be included in part 2. I personally first got introduced to Keaggy’s music with Find Me In These Fields, so I’ve had to go backwards in the chronology of his catalog for part 1 of this article and part of part 2.

  2. Happily surprised to find Keaggy today!!! Keaggy is ridiculous! Master of electric and acoustic. Beautiful fluid lines or noisy shredding. The Play Thru Me album was my first exposure. I got it when Morning Light was a hit on Christian radio in ‘82. Happy has DiMeola level virtuosity with a childlike musical lyricism and a pure, well, happiness to his solo. From that album on I’ve been hooked for nearly 40 years. Can’t find it on Spotify!

      1. Thanks for the article! BTW, I heard Keaggy say that as much as he might like it to be, the Hendrix rumor is not true. The Hendrix rumor about Terry Kath is true, and Hendrix took Chicago on tour almost immediately after hearing Kath, and that is confirmed by Peter Cetera, James Guercio and others. This was before Chicago’s first album.

  3. Since the Hendrix rumor has circulated for years, it was worth mentioning with a qualifying “unconfirmed” tag. However, the Bloomfield anecdote is definitely true, as Phil has mentioned it in print interviews and possibly video or podcast interviews as well.

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