I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of solo guitar. To me it seems to be the instrument with the widest range of possible voices – classical, jazz, folk, blues and country. I’ve played solo guitar finger-picking style for many years, and I can attest to the extreme technical difficulties of the art form. Somehow those intricate patterns that I hear in my head don’t quite make it down to my fingers. When I get particularly frustrated, I begin to imagine conversations between my hands:
Right Hand: “That was pitiful – try to keep up. And next time, better execution on the bar chords.”
Left Hand: “Oh, look who’s talking. Weren’t you a bit out of control there? And can’t you play a bit louder so people can actually hear?”
Me: “Guys, guys, let’s not fight. Can’t you shake hands and agree to make up? Maybe it’s time to go to bed.”
So I can appreciate those who really have this stuff down.
Which brings me to Toulouse Engelhardt, the so-called “Segovia of Surf.” (Actually, his birth name is Thomas). A self-taught guitarist, Engelhardt grew up listening to a lot of Dick Dale, but he’s clearly moved beyond those days. He was a member of the “Takoma Seven,” a group of fingerpickers who recorded for Takoma Records in the ‘60s through the mid 70’s. Other members included John Fahey (who originated the label) and Leo Kottke.
Toulousology, a compilation of songs recorded from 1976 Through 2010, showcases Engelhardt’s virtuosity and compositional inventiveness. He demonstrates a variety of techniques, sometimes sounding classical, sometimes jazzy, sometimes like a Piedmont guitarist on crystal meth. Most of the solos are performed on 12-string guitar – a few are on electric six-string. Most compositions are his own, and include themes from a wide variety of classical and pop sources. Engelhardt often takes his song ideas from non-musical motifs (which is the definition of a tone poem).
“Fire in O’Doodlee’s Popcorn Factory” seems to be his signature piece – I have no idea where he gets the title. Played on 12-string guitar, the song starts and ends with a catchy harmonic run. In the middle is a frantically paced combination of strum/picked folk-style run.
The title of “Young Goodman Brown Joined the Confederacy Today” is taken from a famous Nathaniel Hawthorne short story. It begins with a simple theme anchored by arpeggios done in three/quarters time, which segues into a complicated up-tempo section reminiscent of Leo Kottke (who Engelhardt lists as one of his mentors).
Engelhardt also uses a 12-string on the Jimi Hendrix song “Third Stone from the Sun.” He uses lightning fast strumming and picking to substitute for the Hendrix psychedelic electronic effects. There may be a bit of an inside joke in the song selection, since the lyrics from Hendrix’s version includes the lines: “[A]nd you’ll never hear surf music again.”
Engelhardt switches to Piedmont-style picking on electric guitar on “Beavers in a Hot Tub” – an electric guitar arrangement of the Leave It to Beaver theme song – and “Pressed Hams.”
Both in his titles and in his playing, Engelhardt shows a wry sense of humor (which you’d better have if you’re going to spend a lot of time playing this kind of music). He avoids the major sin of many pickers – he doesn’t dwell on a particular theme too long, making sure to switch tempos and styles frequently enough to maintain the listener’s interest.
So I heartily recommend buying this CD. Toulouse Engelhardt demonstrates dazzling technique and range that speaks clearly to the possibilities inherent in solo guitar. He does so in an intriguing way that doesn’t seem preachy or self-important.
And both my hands agree with me.