Being a guitar hero doesn’t necessarily require an outsize personality, flamboyant sensibility, or sense of hot-dog showmanship. It helps, certainly; there’s a reason why Prince, Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel and, more recently, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark are among my favorite axe-slingers. But some of the most stunning guitar players are those who can craft a kind of magic from a more low-key sensibility. Someone like the late Elliott Smith or American primitivist folk pioneer John Fahey. Someone like Steve Gunn.
To understand the appeal of Gunn’s intricate playing style, watch his Tiny Desk Concert recorded at the NPR studios back in 2013. The entire performance of "Old Strange"—all 10 minutes of it—is hypnotic. The way Gunn effortlessly repeats certain phrases and riffs is raga-like, his wrist and fingers a precision machine. And yet it’s not overly showy. Gunn and his bandmates work together as a perfectly synchronized unit. There’s something peaceful and meditative about it, yet exotic and thrilling all at once.
Yet to focus exclusively on Gunn’s guitar talents—though extraordinary—would be to overlook the nuances of his equally impressive songwriting abilities. His latest album, The Unseen In Between, bears few hallmarks of the spiritual, psychedelic folk heard on some of his previous albums. It is, by comparison, a more conventional folk-rock album that fans of Wilco or The War on Drugs could easily get into, and often just as strong as those bands’ best moments. Take, for instance, the single "Vagabond," a catchy rock song with more than its share of sonic details to soak in. True to the title, it’s about a life spent on the move—something Gunn surely has a lot of experience with, both as a solo artist and a former member of Kurt Vile’s band The Violators—and the details are vivid and colorful: "Camped up in a graveyard, took a job to clean some tombstones, like lovers in the shadow of a crooked dream."
There’s at once a romanticism and a grittiness about Steve Gunn’s songwriting that nods to some of the heralded singer-songwriters of the 1970s. But he’s also just as likely to veer into avant-garde expressions. Any time that Gunn emerges from the studio, he does so with music well worth diving into, and I’ll gladly do so, if for no better reason than just to keep hearing him play guitar.
Other recommended shows:
Ólafur Arnalds (February 2, The Observatory North Park): One of the funniest things about Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds is that he used to play drums in a hardcore band called Fighting Shit. But that’s not obvious when you’re listening to his graceful, spacious solo recordings. He’s scored films and television and reinterpreted the works of Chopin; most of all, Arnalds specializes in achingly gorgeous instrumentals that take their time to unfold and reveal themselves. Still, it’s comforting to know that even someone capable of this kind of beauty had his own punk phase.
North Mississippi Allstars (February 6, Belly Up): One of the latest trends in rock music that’s started to grate on me is a weird, affected, stomp-and-clap reinterpretation of the blues that always sounds corny and manufactured. North Mississippi Allstars is a refreshing antidote to all that. Their sound is heavily informed by the hill country blues sound of legends like Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. It’s a 21st-century update on blues that I can definitely get behind.
Lee "Scratch" Perry (February 10, House of Blues): Lee "Scratch" Perry is among the most influential and important figures in reggae music, pretty much ever. He’s a pioneering musician in dub, a distinctive style of mostly instrumental, experimental reggae, and he’s produced records by the likes of Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Congos, and the Clash. Basically, if you’ve listened to any reggae in the past five decades, there’s a good chance that artist owes a great debt to Perry.