When listening to music, if you're anything like myself, you create a picture of the artist in your mind—a mental representation of presence, of posture, of detail of the moment. For instance, I "remember" Clapton smoking his way through Smokestack Lightnin' on my favorite Yardbirds' album, Five Live Yardbirds, not as a gangly teenager but as the long-haired and mustachioed guitarist with Cream. When I heard Glass Harp's first album, I was certain that Phil Keaggy was the tallest member of the group, but when I heard the music the picture of the bassist, Dan Pecchio, picking out those incredible and unique leads instead of the diminutive-in-comparison Keaggy was as wrong as it could be. With that in mind, I hope Lee Westwood forgives me if as I listen to To Sleep: Farewell Songs he appears lanky, tall, long hair hanging down and obscuring one of those "Dad Gad" guitars he is so partial to, fingers of both hands waving and twisting like the arms of a small octopus. Hey, I tried to play guitar once. It was hard just to chord. To play like Lee Westwood is a gift.
Part of that gift is the package of twelve acoustic compositions presented here. Sometimes solo, sometimes with help from Philippe Barnes, Westwood here creates twelve separate stand-alone tone poems, each painting a musical picture. Indeed, each is attached to a pen and ink (?) drawing of artist Adam Oehlers which add visual to the landscape and takes the music, and the art, to another level. Whether it is a chicken or egg thing matters not, the influence of each art form on the other being more of perception than actuality. What matters is that when the music starts, one cannot help but pick up the insert and look at the corresponding drawing. It almost seems as if they belong together through some cosmic melding of the arts.
Some would call this improvisational, but what it really is is compositional. Parts seem classical, others straight jazz, while others are virtual rock (there are moments where, if Westwood wasn't playing acoustic, you would have to use "unplugged" to describe them). You could use a number of works by other guitarists to describe the music, but that perception would be in your own head. It would not be unlike comparing Yeats to Langston Hughes, even though the only real comparison is the medium of the written word. Each of Westwood's compositions is an original, created at some place and time within a certain space. You realize that after the first listen and, sure, you might have a feeling that you have heard that little trill someplace else, or even the backward run on the minor chord, but you really haven't. Not unless you have heard Westwood.
There have always been two schools of thought regarding appreciation of this realm of acoustic guitar music: the if-you-don't-focus, you-don't-get-it school and the more common if-I-don't-get-it-right-off, it-isn't-for-me faction. I have to admit that it does take a bit of focus to hear what Westwood is doing, but that is mostly because he attempts things beyond most guitarists. The thing is, he does it so well, the first group will find the focusing second nature after a few cursory listens, and the second will find that a little effort can be incredibly rewarding.
On the technical side, this is an extremely well recorded album with top-notch performance. Westwood's octopus-like tendrils float over the strings with seeming ease, the notes clear and precise and, amazingly, with no sleeve noise (that's the noise made when fingers shift from one chord to another). And the tone? Beautiful. Philippe Barnes' contributions on silver flute, wooden flute and Galician Pipes are masterful, especially on Reels, which bounces through a handful of movements in a mere few minutes and should catch the ear of even the skeptic. Same goes for Gerard Mapstones' guitar on Hell Is Full of Angels.
As for artist Adam Oehlers, I have an odd feeling that I have seen some of his work before, or maybe some like it. The drawings are intriguing to me, the subjects encased in a fantasy world way beyond my ability to comprehend. They are presented in a very well put together insert, one drawing per song, perfect for holding while listening to the album. It is a perfect complement to a very impressive album. Very impressive, indeed.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2007, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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