A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange by
I think it's best to approach the Wheel (Stephen Shartel on acoustic guitar and lead vocals and Michael Bobrik on acoustic lead guitar and harmony vocals) and their disc from two angles: as a house band and as a singer/songwriter duo.
First, a bit of background. Spin This is The Wheel’s first CD, following two cassette releases of mostly original material. The duo got together in 1992 to be the house band at the Cowboy Cafe in Arlington, Virginia, bar, playing mainly covers. They make no effort to hide their deep classic rock and folk-rock influences; their promotional material talks about influence from the Grateful Dead and Neil Young. I grew up on classic rock, and their music does strongly recall groups like the Birds, CSN, and other folk-tinged rock bands from the 60s and 70s.
As a house band, The Wheel excels. Even without bass and drums, they certainly must rock the place. To start with the most obvious, Michael Bobrik can _cook_ on the guitar. He clearly knows his way up and down the fretboard and is not shy about showing off. The disc is packed with creative solos and melody lines from him, and the duo has opened up a lot of space within songs for jamming. Stephen Shartel's rhythm guitar is consistent and infectious; his sense of timing and rhythm provides the perfect background for Bobrik's soloing. The songs are just right for a house band--not too deep (Temporary Blues), lots of catchy choruses ("Elijah Blue"), lots of songs about women (Sara, Angel of the Road). The songs are mostly of the 3-chords-and-a- bridge style common in straight-ahead rock and roll. Lyrics such as "If I moved away with you would you take my blues away/Would you help me start again somewhere somehow" (from If I Said) are good both to listen to and to have a conversation over--you don't feel as though you missed something. Some of the lyrics, though (for example much of Angel of the Road) transcend boy- meets-girl conventionality. Shartel's voice sounds like a cross between Jerry Garcia and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour. Both melodies and harmonies are simple and straightforward.
But what makes a good house band is not necessarily what an audience looks for in singer-songwriters. For instance, even though Bobrik is an excellent soloist, I think sometimes he needs to lay off a bit. No matter how good he is, if you're listening for songs and not solos, it might get old. The songs, while often better than pop radio, are not the kind that stay with you after listening. The same--I hate to say it--shallowness in some of the lyrics that lets you talk over them outweighs the quality of the music surrounding them. And, even though many great songs are just "3-chords-and-a-bridge," the songs here don't break far enough from tradition to get beyond mediocrity. Shartel's voice, while good for a house band, doesn't carry a lot of range or emotion, and the harmonies with Bobrik are not very innovative or, frankly, interesting.
On the whole, this is not a bad disc, and could be an excellent one depending on what you're looking for. If you like amazing acoustic guitar solos over classic-rock style songs, then The Wheel will impress you. If you're ever in the Arlington, Virginia, area, I'd certainly recommend popping into the Cowboy Cafe some Thursday night to see them live.
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Edited by Kerry Dexter