I made it to the CD release party for Stevie Coyle’s new solo project, titled ‘Ten in One‘.
Stevie has been on the national circuit for some time, most famous for being a founding member of The Waybacks. When I first encountered the Waybacks, they were in their second incarnation, with flatpick wonder James Nash on lead. What struck me most was a jamming, full ensemble like that with a fingerstyle guy like Stevie. Fingerstyle tends to get drowned out in bands, but the Waybacks managed to arrange their tunes so that Coyle’s guitar was fully present in the mix and ‘little’ Stevie, with his folksy yet polished persona, was definitely the grounding spiritual force in that iteration of the band. Coyle ultimately left the highly successful project to focus on his solo playing, spending the last year or so touring the US and Europe, playing festivals and giving workshops. But it appears he’s making his bread and butter on the private house concert circuit, where his easy rapport, clever banter and disarmingly unassuming, but devastatingly spot-on picking are all given the spotlight they deserve.
Stevie Coyle is possibly the cleanest fingerpicker out there. To hear him play a tune in standard ‘travis style‘, is akin to sipping branch water from a cedar bucket with a tin dipper–a total unification of experience and meaning.
His music draws from early American folk and traditional American fingerpicking, but also from all kinds of Americana, given his own unique trajectory as a circus performer, and actor. With a powerful left hand–one any singing fingerpicker could envy–he adds odd colors that enliven the arrangements of his sung numbers, and uses series of complex, rapid fire inversions to execute his more guitar-centric instrumentals. He’s a ‘thumb over‘ guy, so I suspect he was schooled in the 60s folk style liturgy at an early age. This technique involves bringing the left hand thumb over the top of the neck, giving the player a fifth fretting finger to work with. Without it many Reverend Gary Davis arrangements can’t be reproduced. It’s funny how some of these tricks that were stock and trade of the early modern folk fingerpicking lexicon have gone by the wayside. It was refreshing to see someone making such expert use of it.
While uber-clean folk fingerpicking is Stevie’s forte, he is by no means limited to one right hand technique. There’s some Chet Atkins in there, and influences from Celtic music and perhaps even classical, as Coyle employs several interesting right hand moves to fingerpick in 3/4 and 6/8. Playing on a beautiful rosewood Thompson cut-away, every note sounded perfect as he massaged all the voices into their proper positions. I had the chance to pick up this guitar at Stevie’s house one time, and was blown away by the presence and playability of this axe. I remember thinking “Oh, so this is what the big boys play…” In Coyle’s hands, this instrument just breathes rich, immersive music.
On his comical songs and his between song banter, Stevie is irreverent and debonair, but in his instrumental pieces and love songs, you get to see his true soul, sensitive and aware, a perfect counterpoint to his sideshow carnie character.
He’ll play deceptively simple passages, at times no more than fingerpicking the basic position chords as he sings in a clear, relaxed voice, then throw in a fluid, mind-boggling difficult to execute fingerstyle run, casually, without letting on that anything out of the ordinary just occurred. And while the left hand needed to pull off these runs is above the norm for many fingerpickers, it’s the accuracy of his right hand that make these licks sparkle. All done in an understated way that keeps the music in the forefront instead of drawing attention to the guitar heroics.
As a performer, and really–unlike many–meriting the moniker ‘entertainer’, Coyle crafts his set to achieve a certain effect on his audience. Guitar mastery is not the main event; Coyle knows most non-musicians, even though they love guitar, don’t really care as much as guitarists about technique. In fact, at the show the other night Stevie–ever the teacher–wanted to explain his use of the partial capo, but when he asked for guitarists in the audience, there were almost none. Given it was a full house (100 +) –it was proof of the appeal of his music beyond those who are interested in his technical mastery. With Stevie Coyle, the feeling of the music is what it’s all about.
On Ten in One, the new CD, which was performed by a full band made up of some of the musicians who appear on the record, the emphasis is again on the music. While keeping some solo guitar pieces in there, and letting the fingerpicking hold a central role in the music, and in telling the stories, it is a full blown concept album–his “Sergeant Peppers” as Stevie jokes. I’ll let you do your own research and discover the meanings behind the metaphors, but I’ll clue you in as far as the title. A 10 in 1 is a tent on the carnival midway where ten attractions are all available for one price. Fans of The Waybacks will be familiar with this concept from Coyle’s brilliant tune “Petrified Man” which appears here in a new arrangement. To find out more, get the CD. For those who are fans of the kind of bluesy, face melting fingerpicking we love here at Folk Blues Guitar Obsession, get ye post haste to track 18, ‘Microphone Fever’. We get a good section of Stevie solo, (along with the sounds of the carnival,) then magically, things unfold with guitarist Walter Strauss, who also produced the project, joining in on the baritone guitar–weaving a second line into Stevie’s and then doubling him. At the live show Strauss displayed his own very progressive right hand technique, influenced by West African fingerstyle guitar, and his own rhythmic explorations. He plays in a truly free manner, seeming to be constantly improvising, but tastefully pacing himself in the mix. Strauss’ oddly syncopated guitar rolls, tight, plucked comping and his method of playing lyrical, linear lines in fingerstyle perfectly compliment Coyle’s own picking. Playing live, the two accomplished something I don’t think I’ve ever seen pulled off so well: having two fingerstyle guitarists playing in counterpoint to each other without drowning each other out or clashing. This was most impressive during the more improvisational sections. (For those wondering, I think this is accomplished by listening to the other musician while playing, but I’m only guessing.)
If Stevie’s first solo project is any indication, he’s just started releasing great music. The hipness of songs like “Train on the Brain” and “She Ain’t Got Me”, the bitter-sweetness of “Last Song For You” and “Penny Wishes”, along with the mature mastery of instrumentals like “Rue du Romie,” all make for a complete tapestry of moods.
With players like Sam Bevan (David Grisman) on bass, and people like mandolin master Mike Marshall showing up on the disc, this is accomplished, pro stuff. From a strictly fingerpicker’s perspective, there are a few places I just want to hear more of the guitar rather than all this lush instrumentation, but from a music lover’s viewpoint, this whole deal is a real sonic treat.
And, amazingly, if you want some Stevie in your life, all you need to do is get enough friends together to put on an event. To look at his schedule, he’ll go anywhere at any time to entertain if there’s a few bucks in it. Plus the guy teaches guitar, so put it on your to-do to get a lesson!