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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist: Phil Keaggy
Label: Green Hill
Length: 12 tracks / 38 minutes
Although this will be a familiar release to some Americans, it has only just been issued in the UK – and what a welcome disc it is, as it shows a side of the master guitarist that we have seen little of. Despite his 50 or so albums over a few decades, ranging from noodly electric jams to classical acoustic creations, with a random variety of concept albums, collaborations and guitar promotional releases in between, this is surprisingly his first acoustic covers album.
One thing that sets this apart is that we can compare his style directly with the originals after years of only hearing him on his own terms. Anyone familiar with his work will know that, even on a standalone basis, his playing is exceptional and unique. Here we get a blend of replicating the original, in almost reverential style, and adding that special Keaggy flair to other people’s work.
With a voice that is as close to Paul McCartney’s as anyone’s (with the exception of Dan Gillespie-Sells from The Feeling), and given his well-known affection for The Beatles, it is their material that comes across with the greatest sense of respect. The collection opens with “Here Comes the Sun,” which, like several of George Harrison’s songs, is Beatles-for-guitarists anyway. Later comes the gorgeous, melodic Lennon piece “Here, There, Everywhere,” which fits a treat here, Then, for the hat trick, Keaggy lets his old mate Randy Stonehill add guitar and vocals to “In My Life.” This vocal pairing brings a rough-smooth feel, with Keaggy limiting himself mainly to background vocals, and the timbres that Stonehill brings are exactly right.
Keeping with the ‘sixties, Dylan is the only other artists to get more than one cover, and – as with the James Taylor piece – Keaggy takes on the original artist’s vocal idiosyncrasies so much that you could guess who wrote the song, even if you didn’t know. It can really only be the vocals that decide what the listener makes of this disc, as the songs are virtually all classics and Keaggy’s guitar playing is predictably impeccable. He shares the duties out on several songs, so Nina Landis gets the unenviable job of trying to compete with Christine McVie and Eva Cassidy on “Songbird,” a track whose every nuance is known by millions. Jeremy Casella has the fun of recreating Everley Brothers harmonies on “All I Have to do is Dream” and Alicia Keaggy tries to “do” Cyndi Lauper on “Time After Time”. This latter cover is good in that it stretches the era covered from the ‘sixties out to the ‘eighties, but keeping the vocal duties in the family, rather than handing them out by suitability, seems to be a mistake. Her voice is simply not strong enough for this song. Similarly, including one of Keaggy’s own compositions among such classics can only be justified on royalties grounds, and dampens the end of the disc a little.
“God Only Knows” and Billy Joel’s “She’s Got a Way” are other tracks on this fine release, which is billed as the first of an Acoustic Café series. The format does leave a part of me wondering how the music would sound like if it was given the full electric production, but that is not the point of the disc. It claims on the back: “Timeless love songs performed in an intimate acoustic setting will leave you smiling and inspired. It’s mellow cool on a sunny afternoon”. If that’s the target, Keaggy hits it near the bullseye.