Thursday, February 05, 2004

Turning Guitars Into Gongs and Bedsprings

The slide guitar is a triumph of analog over digital, of the infinite, vocalistic pitch gradations possible with a slide on a string rather than with the fixed intervals built into a fretboard. On Tuesday night at Merkin Hall 'Let It Slide' savored the notes between the notes of the scale with four slide guitarists: Bob Brozman, Daniel Lanois, Cindy Cashdollar and David Tronzo. It was the final concert of the New York Guitar Festival, which was recorded for broadcast on WNYC-FM.

Slide guitarists don't usually get the spotlight. They're team players, and the four headliners jovially accompanied one another during the concert. The night began with an impromptu: a new song that caught Mr. Tronzo's ear as Mr. Lanois toyed with it backstage. With Mr. Lanois picking a borrowed classical guitar and Mr. Tronzo playing slide guitar, they performed it moments later: a fragile, poised, pensive little minor-key waltz.

The program mixed the down-home and the avant-garde. It reached back to the 1920's and 30's in Ms. Cashdollar's set and roved worldwide in Mr. Brozman's medleys. Mr. Lanois's solos looked inward, while Mr. Tronzo grew playfully experimental.

Mr. Tronzo, using an old, cheap Silvertone guitar, started with a jagged melody and improvised from there with an assortment of slides. A pill bottle, a cigar tube and a plastic cup each shaped the overtones; the guitar sounded like gongs, thumb piano or bedsprings before a final bluesy flourish.

Ms. Cashdollar made her guitars sing and moan, dipping into Americana (like the western swing hit "Steel Guitar Rag" and "Little Brown Girl," a Hawaiian-style Tin Pan Alley song) and playing tunes by fellow guitarists. She had a resonator guitar (like a Dobro), a triple-necked lap steel guitar and a simpler lap steel guitar, burnishing the melodies as she fingerpicked her own rhythm. Mr. Brozman soon joined her, strumming rhythm and counterpoint.

Mr. Brozman's own set was a virtuosic overload, played on various guitars and full of impressive effects: gliding notes, tinkling harmonics, quick-strummed rhythms and weightless codas sliding skyward. His medleys incorporated Hawaiian, Malagasy, Indian and blues licks, not to mention a little Debussy, along with his enthusiastic, sometimes grating voice. But they were so crammed and showy that the music hardly got a chance to breathe.

In a rare performance playing solo pedal steel guitar, Mr. Lanois, who has produced albums by U2 and Bob Dylan, used the instrument for hovering meditations. Liquid chords welled up behind folky melodies, making music that was expansive yet humble, as if contemplating wide-open spaces.

John Schaefer of WNYC-FM interviewed the musicians onstage, and David Spelman, the executive director of the New York Guitar Festival, played classical guitar in a duet with Ms. Cashdollar: Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" a gentle elegy for Robert J. Harth, the artistic director of Carnegie Hall, who died on Friday.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company