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

Issue 146

Part One of this series (Issue 145) covered Phil Keaggy’s early music with hard rock power trio Glass Harp, his experiments with prog rock, jazz fusion, classical and Elizabethan acoustic guitar, show tunes, and ballads, and his attempts to reconcile these divergent musical directions within the context of what would soon become classified as CCM, or contemporary Christian music. The mid-1980s were a period that featured some of the finest releases of Phil Keaggy’s career, which led to his two Grammy nominations and multiple Gospel Music Association (GMA) Dove Award wins, and the roots of his musical directions as a superb acoustic guitar instrumentalist and a pioneer of looping and multiple capo fingerpicking styles.

April, 1983 saw Underground, released on the Nissi label (and later reissued on CD), a collection of demos in which Phil Keaggy played all of the instruments and produced, engineered, and mixed all of the tracks in his basement home studio, hence the title. Although the mixes are on the rough side, Keaggy’s guitar overdubs show a growing jazz fusion influence with elements of Jeff Beck, Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin in both his chromatic phrasings and tone.

Two years later, Keaggy would release Getting Closer!, also on Nissi. Keaggy’s Paul McCartney-esque vocals and a greater emphasis on more cohesive, less jazz-oriented songs mark Getting Closer! as an artistic breakthrough for him. Songs like the piano-heavy “I Will Be There,” “Sounds,” and “Like An Island” have a Hall and Oates or Toto kind of radio-friendly flavor, replete with prominent Yamaha DX-7 synths, which have become as emblematic of 1980s music as electric 12-string guitars were for the 1960s. The guitar solos also have a slick, ’80s-era type of sound, unlike the rawer tones of Keaggy’s 1970s releases, although his phrasing showcases many sweep picking flurries, a style that didn’t come into prominence until the ’80s. Vocally, he challenges himself with scat singing beyond his normal range into some falsetto shrieks that mimic his guitar lines.

Keaggy clearly has a warm spot in his heart (and music catalog) for Getting Closer! As his Myrrh 2-CD anthology collection, Time, contains the aforementioned three songs.

 

Phil Keaggy’s next recording, Way Back Home, showed a growing interest in orchestration. While he had incorporated some strings on Love Broke Thru and woodwinds on The Master and The Musician, Way Back Home featured both string sections and arrangements that gave string bass, cello, oboe, clarinet and soprano sax greater prominence in the mix. Perhaps as a result of his listening to these recordings retrospectively, the 1994 reissue Way Back Home would tone down the strings and woodwinds, and even omit some of them completely in these songs’ alternate mixes.

 

Way Back Home also showcased more original Keaggy music set to classic poetry. Songs like “Maker of the Universe,” written by Frederick W. Pitt, a 19th century British clergyman, and “In Every Need,” with words by    American hymn writer Samuel Longfellow, are examples of Keaggy’s attempts to bring the spiritual messages of these centuries-old writings into the modern world, and his voracious reading would give him further inspiration for additional songs.

New age instrumental music, popularized by synthesizer artists like Vangelis and Kitaro and acoustic labels such as Windham Hill and Narada, became a Billboard magazine commercial category in the 1980s. Smooth jazz, with the harsh tones rounded off and mixed in a wash of synthesizers and ambience, also gained prominence, with artists like Kenny G. becoming both a commercial giant and a critics’ whipping boy.

In this environment, Phil Keaggy’s The Wind and the Wheat, his second all-instrumental album, would become both a commercial and critical success, marking the first of his seven Dove Award nominations, and a win in 1988 for Instrumental Album of the Year. While preserving his sweep picking fusion jazz leanings, Keaggy couched the tones in the smoother direction hinted at in Getting Closer!, simultaneously refining a melodic lead guitar approach akin to Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow. His use of the tremolo bar and the rack effects of that era are very much a product of the Beck influence, as “March Of The Clouds,” the album’s opening track, would demonstrate.

 

Phil Keaggy’s previous experience working with producer/engineer Jack Joseph Puig worked well enough for Keaggy to invite him back to handle production on all recording and mixing duties, and essentially be director of all elements related to technical sound on his next album, Phil Keaggy and Sunday’s Child.

Crystallizing his pop/rock sensibilities and early Sixties Beatles and Byrds influences, Sunday’s Child utilized vintage recording techniques and instruments, including Rickenbacker 12-string guitars for the Byrds/Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night” sounds, as well as Ringo Starr’s personal vintage Ludwig drum kit.

Featuring top-notch guest musicians such as bassist Rick Cua (The Outlaws), percussionist Lenny Castro (Toto) and old friends Randy Stonehill and producer/guitarist Lynn Nichols, Sunday’s Child was such an irresistibly inviting pop song collection that it was simultaneously released on both Christian label Myrrh and A&M Records for wider commercial distribution.

The Puig touch is evident in the muscularity of the vocals and guitar parts, concurrently retaining Keaggy’s trademark flash while honed to a diamond-sharp conciseness that eschews throwaway or overindulgent lines in order to fully serve the songs.

“Sunday’s Child,” co-written and sung with Stonehill in a Lennon/McCartney Beatle-esque mode, is a good example of Keaggy’s approach to SIxties pop sounds, with its jangling Rickenbacker 12-string lead riff.

 

1990 would start the last decade of the 20th century with one of Keaggy’s finest works. Find Me In These Fields marked the culmination of all of Keaggy’s musical influences: catchy pop music, blues, classical and new age acoustic, fusion jazz and hard rock guitar solos, and inspired, melodic vocals – all in a commercially viable collection of brilliant songwriting and performances. Find Me In These Fields garnered Keaggy his first-ever Grammy nomination for Best Rock Gospel album, and was released on A&M. (Personal note: Find Me In These Fields was my introduction to the music of Phil Keaggy, so hearing this record admittedly skews my praise for it.)

The album features brief, minute-long fingerpicked acoustic guitar pieces that range stylistically from Chet Atkins to Andres Segovia, and are interspersed between the rock songs. The kickoff electric track, “Strong Tower,” features a captivating opening riff, leading into an anthemic chorus that adds slide guitar to counterpoint later verses.

 

Keaggy would include “Strong Tower” in his solo acoustic concerts as well, combining the acoustic intro piece from the album.

 

“Carry On” is another strong song that demonstrates how adept Keaggy is at seamlessly shifting rhythmic, chromatic and modal elements in his virtuosic flourishes while still maintaining infectious, commercial hooks and a sense of genuine fun throughout, especially during the drum break and the jazzy runs near the end.

 

1991 saw the release of Beyond Nature, perhaps the overwhelming favorite record of Phil Keaggy fans (according to the plethora of most-played songs culled from the album on Spotify) and the record that put him on the map for acoustic guitar instrumental enthusiasts worldwide. An all-instrumental album, Beyond Nature manifested all of the classical, folk, and new age acoustic guitar influences that Keaggy had been woodshedding over the past two decades, with a compositional approach inspired by the works and life of Christian author C.S. Lewis.

The liner notes contain the C.S. Lewis quote from his book, Mere Christianity:

“Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her…Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.

And in there, and beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life.”

 

Phil Keaggy.

Phil Keaggy.

 

Songs such as “Brother Jack,” “Addison’s Walk” and “Fragile Forest” referred to Lewis’ long, meditative walks through British woodlands, often in prayer and with close friends like writer J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings).

Keaggy included an arrangement of Edvard Grieg’s “Symphonic Dance (Op. 64)” called “Symphonic Dance – A Variation on Allegretto Grazioso,” and his sparse, but nuanced use of stringed and woodwind instruments, such as fiddle and oboe are the pinnacle of previous experiments from The Master and The Musician and other albums. In keeping with his updated arrangements of hymns, Beyond Nature includes the gorgeous “I Feel the Winds of God Today,” with recorders, pizzicato strings and bass in discreet accompaniment, while Keaggy’s acoustic guitar takes liberties with the melody in a number of variations, stylistically crossing between Andres Segovia and Michael Hedges, a guitarist whom Keaggy grew to admire greatly.

Additionally, Keaggy’s forays into altered guitar tunings, such as the Celtic-influenced, Davy Graham-created DADGAD (low to high), which has also been a favorite of finger stylist Pierre Bensusan and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page (“Kashmir’), led to “County Down,” a fingerpicking masterpiece. It’s probably the song most identified with Keaggy among acoustic guitarists as a must-learn-how-to play cover song, much like the way “Stairway to Heaven” has become a similar “must learn” tune for rock guitar neophytes.

 

A close second favorite song, as confirmed by the number of YouTube cover versions posted by professional and amateur guitarists alike, is “In the Light of Common Day,” which opens Beyond Nature and which Keaggy reprises as the second-to-last track on the album. An audience favorite, Keaggy performs it regularly in his acoustic concerts.

 

Beyond Nature would go on to win Keaggy’s second Dove Award for Best Instrumental Record.

Riding an artistic and commercial high, in 1993, Keaggy reunited with Glass Harp drummer John Sferra, which inspired new recordings, including some cover songs and arrangements in the Glass Harp power trio vein. New bassist Wade Jaynes and old friends Phil Madeira on keys and Lynn Nichols on guitar rounded out what would later become Keaggy’s touring ensemble.

Recording in a converted old Victorian cottage in Nashville that would eventually become known as Vibe56, Keaggy released some teaser tracks on an EP entitled Revelator, which included what Keaggy has described in interviews as a “Cream-style interpretation” of the old Son House and Blind Willie Johnson blues gospel song, “John the Revelator.”

 

“John the Revelator” was added to the album, Crimson and Blue, that grew out of these new sessions, which would garner Keaggy a second Grammy nomination for Best Rock Gospel album. In addition to fresh Keaggy originals that continued in the vein of Find Me In These Fields, the album featured a cover of Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God,” and the old gospel hymn, “Nothing But The Blood.”

In an interview, Keaggy explained: “I started Crimson & Blue with a two-fold purpose: to record something more aggressive, and to work with John [Sferra] again. We recorded all the basic tracks together and most of the leads were recorded live.”

In what easily could have been included on Sunday’s Child, Keaggy’s “Love Divine” was an intentional homage to the Beatles’ “All My Loving” in structure, yet with a completely different melody and guitar solo. Keaggy’s vocal is unabashedly McCartney influenced.

 

Interestingly, Epic Records decided to release Crimson and Blue in a more commercial version titled, Blue, which substituted several more secular songs from the Vibe56 sessions. Among them was a stunning cover of Badfinger’s classic, “Baby Blue.”

 

Blue also featured  “All Our Wishes,” and a Glass Harp-style jam, “The Further Adventures of…” from Revelator, as well as shorter versions of “Doin’ Nothin’” and “Everywhere I Look.” Five songs from Crimson and Blue were deleted, including “Love Divine” and “Nothing But The Blood.”

Part Three will give a partial overview of Keaggy’s subsequent works until the present, as his prolific output increased exponentially as a result of the improved quality of his home studio, and his elevated profile as a solo acoustic guitar artist. Also, once he became an unsigned independent artist, he gained greater freedom to collaborate with peers and friends from all genres of music, including rock luminaries Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta, Christian metalheads P.O.D., and even former Monkee Mickey Dolenz.

Additionally, Part Three will take a closer look at Keaggy’s pioneering digital looping work, which has become almost a gold standard for acoustic guitarists, and a technique that has become popularized (in much more elementary form) by Ed Sheeran and K.T. Tunstall, among others.

2 comments on “Phil Keaggy – A Lifetime of Making Joyful Noises, Part Two”

  1. Wow this is just wonderfully researched and written.

    Have been in awe of his talent since early 80s.

    I met Phil at a NAMM show late 80s and could only get out, “You’re Phil Keaggy!”

    I was struck by the difference in our height to the point that I felt awkward, like an oversized oaf. I’m 6’5” and he’s probably 5’5”. Regardless he’s a musical giant.

    Well done.

  2. Thank you. He’s just an incredibly talented, yet humble musician whose work has been grossly overlooked, in my opinion. I’m glad you enjoyed the article so far; Part 2 was easier for me as that was the era in which I first heard Keaggy’s music. Part 1 required a lot more research, since I had only heard maybe 1 or 2 tracks from the earlier records, although I do have the Glass Harp live from Carnegie Hall CD. Hope you enjoy part 3 as well coming soon.

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