Tony Savarino – Guitaring (2010)

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by Nick DeRiso

The worry, with any rock-guitar virtuoso’s recording, is that it will quickly devolve into onanistic noodling. But Tony Savarino’s Guitaring adroitly sidesteps the problem with a keen eye for variety, and a welcome sense of unselfishness in the studio.

The Boston-bred musician is a dabbler, with a finger in everything from rock to funk, from soul to country, from pop to reggae. He’s literally all over the map.

That’s led to a head-scratchingly diverse series of sideman gigs across his home city. He was a longtime bandmate with Dale Bozzio (who fronted 1980s new wavers Missing Persons); sat in with the Darlings, an award-winning local country-rock outfit; and appeared as part of a 1970s-style R&B band called Alto Reform School, named for the juvenile lockup where James Brown first formed His Famous Flames band.

Savarino mixes and matches styles in the same way on Guitaring.

You’ll hear him tearing through “Early American” by 1950s guitar innovator Joe Maphis, who came to fame by incorporating these fiddle-breakdown freakouts into his act on a double-necked Mos-Rite Special that he helped design. But Savarino also does a delicate dance through “Freight Train” by folk blues legend Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, a lefty whose unique style of upside-down playing was so revered that it eventually came to be widely known as “Cotten picking.”

Credit Savarino, too, for assembling a crack band. Each member arrives with his own considerable chops, and that keeps the record from becoming overly obsessed with Savarino’s admittedly outsized skills.

Guitaring features first-call sessions drummer Mike Levesque (David Bowie, Natalie Imbruglia), as well as pianist Tom West (Susan Tedeschi, Peter Wolf). The record is also helped along by bassist Rich Cortese, whose debut album with the seminal late-1980s Beantown post-punk band the Zulus was produced by Bob Mould of Husker Du fame.

Guitaring was mixed and coproduced by Salvantonio Clemente, who along with Savarino and bassist George Cooke are part of the seven-musician, eighteen-singer stadium-rock extravaganza Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra.

Every time Savarino threatens to steal the show, one of these guys nudges his way into the conversation.

That’s perhaps best heard on the opener, this driving country rocker called “Barrel Haus Gutbucket Chicken Pickin” that bears more than a passing resemblance to the roadside jangle of guitar-man Jerry Reed. Yet organist Mike Castellana somehow matches Savarino, stride for myth-making stride.

With that, you know why Savarino’s such an in-demand performer. He is just as good at inhabiting the white-hot spotlight, as he is supporting his fellow musicians from just outside the bright circle of attention.

And all the while, Savarino never tires of experimenting.

“Jericho,” this time with Eric Welsh at the organ, boasts a greasy groove associated with the legendary Stax rhythm section of Booker T. and the MGs. Savarino then turns the spacey Brian Eno tune “Deep Blue Day” (first heard on the Trainspotting soundtrack) on its ear, pairing up for a duet with pedal-steel guitarist Tim Obetz.

In fact, there’s a cool-rocking backwoods vibe running throughout the proceedings, notably on “Take One,” a hot-country romp originally written by the late Phil Baugh. Savarino also offers a terrific version of “Devil in Disguise (a.k.a. Christine’s Tune)” from Gram Parsons’ Flying Burrito Brothers days, with vocals from fellow Berklee alum Adja Snyder.

Savarino tries out sizzling surf music with the Blue Stingrays’ “Russian Roulette,” and handily snakes his way through the straight-forward “Blues for Bb.”

Can anyone be surprised when he goes on to tackle George Gershwin’s “Rialto Ripples”? But instead of settling into a perhaps-expected old-school Dixieland vibe, Savarino channels the gut-busting riffs associated with the 1960s-era Blue Note jazz label, all inside the composition’s signature cascading runs.

You can, across the breadth of Guitaring hear other whispers of inspiration – from Les Paul to Roy Clark, from Steve Howe to Chet Atkins.

And when it’s all said and done, there is the sneaking suspicion that Tony Savarino is just getting started.

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