This is a collection of recordings by one of the world's most eminent slack key players. "Slack key" is a term referring to the detuning of the guitar from standard setting to one that results in a harmonic chord, usually G minor, when played open string. We all know what happens when one tunes down: pitch shifts and a more ringing atmosphere arises. Ironically, ethnomusicologists have noted that the guitar was introduced to Hawaiians by Mexican musicians who showed them how to play then left the natives to do with it as they would. What the Hawaiians came up with is inevitably evocative of the slow sultry balm of that most famed island chain on Earth. This particular body of music has been around for about a century but only recorded in the last 50 or so years, with Gabby Pahuini leading the emergent sounds.
Much of the sonority is a fusion of European and Hawaiian elements, particularly regarding hula and its accompanying mele (chant). Though most of the cuts on Slack & Steel are instrumental, Emerson included several in the lazily beautiful mele process. The listener can't help but become ensnared in these lullbye-ish atmospheres, as the two aspects (rich detuned chords and wafting vocals—often with backing parts) are lush and soporific.
The immortal Sleepwalk is presented, a generous fistful of less-known songs classic to the genre, a cover of a Bob Marley tune, and an original or two. Bill Kreutzman, Todd Rundgren, and Charlie Musselwhite sit in on a few tracks, and Emerson has toured with such luminaries as Pablo Cruise, Boz Scaggs, Jackson Browne, and a generous host of others. The cut with Musselwhite, Too Much Kava Kava, demonstrates how easily blues and slack key musics find common ground, sitting side by side, one never yielding way to other, happy and complicit in a natural fusion.
The elastically lazy sound of slack key is its chiefest feature, making ample room for clever play, and Emerson, especially in Feelin' No Pain, introduces tons of humor, a drunken loopiness, and quite a few musical diversions singular in their odd plays on orthodoxy and heterogeneity. Having heard a number of them previous to this, I've never run across a slack key CD so friendly to the ear. While there's very little flash or exhibitions of hyper-complexity, Emerson's gift is a knowing hand that imbues the songs with a glow and deft cleverness unusual to world music, especially that latter trait. Before long, newgrassers are going to lay ear to his work and catch a boatload of inspiration.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2007, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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