Steve Gunn – Rough Trade NYC – October 12, 2014
There was an old kind of guitar nerd who would go cross-eyed from a solo of Malmsteenian technical skill muttering in awe, “How does he do that?” But nowadays, there’s a new kind of guitar nerd that was out in full force at the Steve Gunn show last night at Rough Trade NYC. These ladies and gentlemen still appreciate the technical skill, which was to be found aplenty throughout Gunn’s set, but along with and really beyond the proficiency, there is an emotional connection that goes deeper. Gunn and his soul-probing band seemed to be performing therapy by six-string, wowing the crowd and then asking, “And how does that make you feel?”
He was an unassuming guitar maestro in denim, his banter was almost accidental and his vocals were understated (part mumble, part moan), but got the job done and counterbalanced the music behind them. The set began with a quick in-line sound check that itself was pretty great, reminiscent of a 1973 Grateful Dead jam, the band tossing around a melody like no big thing. Once the set got swinging, though, it was a cascade of musical emotion, jubilant, cathartic, evocative. The songs were mostly from Gunn’s excellent new album, Way Out Weather—with one or two of the longer jams drawn from older material—the show serving as a release party (with Gunn the type of musician who drinks water at his own Sunday night celebration). Each seemed to evoke a feeling, from the nostalgia of “Wildwood” to the bickering of “Milly’s Garden.” The latter, Gunn explained, was basically about an asshole neighbor, and his guitar and lap steel went back and forth in musical argument, building to an angry crescendo.
Later, those same two instruments overlapped again on “Way Out Weather.” This time the guitars felt like they were in deep, respectful conversation, the jam moving from quiet and beautiful to fiery, the whole band expertly coming together. Whatever the feelings evoked, it was Gunn’s guitar as the source. Impossible amounts of notes poured from his instrument, acoustic and electric, his fingers moving effortlessly up and down his fretboard, like a minimalist masseuse who knows the exact location of each melody’s pressure points. The notes layered into nonlinear masterpieces that stretched out in time and filled the room with a steady hypnosis. After the “session,” a big hug felt appropriate, but a deserved ovation and a soul-searching encore did the trick as well. —A. Stein