Pedal steel guitarists operate on another level. In addition to coordinating two hands, they must operate pitch-changing pedals with one foot, a volume pedal with the other, and levers with their knees. They also might be operating over 12 strings, with octaves that are nowhere near each other. To all that, Susan Alcorn adds tunings that are unusual even for pedal steel, and a propensity, not just for music that is outside the usual country fare, but outside in general. She is one of the rare steel players who is exploring the unique potential of the instrument beyond the normal roots and pop boundaries. Her latest record, Perdernal [Relative Pitch], made my top 10 list for 2020. On it she is joined by guitarist Mary Halvorson and violinist Mark Feldman, two other players who push the limits of their instruments. We talk about Pedernal, as well as The Heart Sutra, a record of her compositions arranged by Janel Leppin, on which she doesn’t appear. Even if you don’t play pedal steel you will enjoy this conversation.
Many of this year’s picks were recorded before 2020, for obvious reasons. Works by veterans (Sharp, Alcorn, Björkenheim) joined some newer voices (Naylor, Yalvaç, Gargaud) in offering us quality distractions from a nightmarish year. If you hear anything you like, please purchase something from the artist. With touring off the table, times are tougher than usual for experimental artists.
Live music on any scale seems somewhat in the future so enjoy this virtual festival, featuring Marc Ribot, David Kollar, Eivind Aarset, Ben Monder, and more during these holidays, and may yours be safe and happy.
If anyone were to be into pedals it would be the modern guitarist. Granted there are a few who play only acoustic, and even fewer who exclusively play plugged straight into the amplifier, but the majority of modern guitarists are to some extent looking to find new sounds in the electric realm and pedals help them go there. The firmament of modern guitar heaven is filled with gods who use a plethora of stompboxes in their quest for sonic freshness. Adrian Belew, Nels Cline, Eivind Aarset, Stian Westerhus, David Torn, Nick Reinhardt, and others employ effect pedals as an essential part of their artistry.
For them, and guitarists of all stripes, this year has seen the release of, not one, but two books (actually three) devoted to these playable, collectable, fetish-encouraging devices.
One of the younger modern guitar maestros, Anthony Pirog knows nothing of stylistic limitations—his music is beyond category, embracing not only jazz, but avant-garde and indie rock, free improvisation, electronic sound, and ambient soundscapes.
Pirog has himself established with his work as one-half of the duo Janel & Anthony, the electric jazz improvisational Five Times Surprise, the classic DC-scene twang inspired Music From The Anacostia Delta, and the exciting trio Messthetics, with Brendan Canty and Joe Lally, the rhythmic section from Fugazi.
His new solo record, Pocket Poem, features the same musicians as 2015’s Palo Colorado Dream: acoustic bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Ches Smith. For this trio record Pirog wanted to layer the compositions with sounds created using modern technology and vintage guitar synthesizers. All of which and more we discuss here.