The Spellcasters – Music of the Anacostia Delta – [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform, Rune 445, 49:05 [5/10/19] *****:
What’s better than one? Two. What’s better than two? Three. That’s the greatness of the Spellcasters’ 49-minute debut, Music of the Anacostia Delta. The quintet includes three Fender Telecaster guitar experts: Joel Harrison, Anthony Pirog and Dave Chappell. They’re backed by John Previte (electric and acoustic bass) and drummer Barry Hart. This 11-track, all-instrumental outing is influenced and is a tribute to the hybrid music from the Anacostia Delta (Washington, DC; northern Virginia; southern Maryland) and specifically to the localized guitarists from that region, especially Danny Gatton (who passed away in 1994) and—to a lesser extent—Roy Buchanan (who died in 1988). Gatton and Buchanan were both masters of the Telecaster who fused blues, rockabilly, jazz and country into memorable material. The genesis for this project occurred when Pirog and Harrison did a gig at a DC roadhouse and Chappell was invited to sit in. With three Telecasters sharing the stage, the Spellcasters were formed. The result of that guitar summit is one of the best instrumental, guitar-fronted albums of the past year.
The Spellcasters have become quite a good live band, which is why six of the 11 tunes on Music of the Anacostia Delta were taped at the Rhizome community arts space in the DC neighborhood of Takoma. The CD set list is an assortment of originals (one by Chappell; one by Pirog; two by Harrison); two Gatton covers; others either associated with Gatton and/or Buchanan; and music which matches the record’s style, mood or geographical setting. Despite the presence of three talented guitarists, this is not a juiced-up affair. There is a mostly unhurried (but never idle) aspect which emphasizes camaraderie and the Telecaster’s tone and audio accents. That facet can be heard on the opener, a live version of the Gatton-penned “Sky King,” where all three guitarists shine as the bass and drums supply a loping rhythmic foundation. From there, things kick up a notch on Chappell’s rockabilly-ratcheted “Jax Boogie,” which also mixes in some jazz attributes and is a fond nod to the late ‘50s era when instrumentals often hit the top 40. Dare you not to start moving your feet when hearing “Jax Boogie.” It’s unclear if this is musically related to the RnB song (see Joe Morris or Dave Bartholomew). Another fast-paced highlight is the band’s rapid run through Jack McDuff’s “Rock Candy,” which was part of Gatton’s repertoire. Gatton slotted his accelerated adaptation of “Rock Candy” into what he dubbed ‘redneck jazz.’ The Spellcasters don’t skimp on the jazz elements but heighten rock music-tinted interplay to give “Rock Candy” a new spin. The group slows down and aims for rock territory as well as a sense of poignancy on a live take of Gatton’s “Kindred Spirits,” where the three guitars craft an intermeshed simpatico. An even more tender side embraces the Spellcasters’ expressive live interpretation of the jazz standard “Harlem Nocturne,” which Gatton did on his 1993 album, Cruisin’ Deuces.
Some music isn’t necessarily tied to Buchanan or Gatton but corresponds to the overall theme. The Spellcasters’ sublime live rendering of Bill Frisell’s “That Was Then” (from Frisell’s 1999 venture, Good Dog, Happy Man) fits into the general ambiance both musically and geographically (Frisell was born in Baltimore, Maryland and is a noted Fender Telecaster player). Here, the Telecaster guitars have a ringing timbre and foster an Americana essence. On the flip side there is a fun, lively mannerism which permeates a jazz-filled romp through Thelonious Monk’s “Bright Mississippi,” which gets an appreciative reaction from the audience. Pirog’s “Running After” and Harrison’s two compositions are also notable. Harrison’s “High Mountain”—a beautiful, guitar-only piece—has a wonderful aesthetic which displays the three guitarists’ innate, collaborative approach. Harrison’s mid-tempo “Hudson Unlimited” has an Americana sincerity with the attention on contrapuntal performance. The Spellcasters conclude with an affecting take of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams,” one of Buchanan’s signature tunes (Polydor’s 1992 Buchanan anthology was also titled Sweet Dreams). There aren’t many three-guitar Telecaster tributes, so it’s fortunate we have Music of the Anacostia Delta. If you somehow missed this, try to find it.
Joel Harrison, Anthony Pirog, Dave Chappell – guitar; John Previte – electric and acoustic bass; Barry Hart – drums
That Was Then
High Mountain [to the memory of James Panek]