Music : A rich menu from Tony Furtado
For some artists, early success stunts development and high expectations are never met. This was not the case with Tony Furtado, a musician from Oregon, who picked up the banjo at 12, and before he was 20 had won two National Bluegrass Banjo Championships.
Mr. Furtado has not stopped progressing. He resisted being known only as a bluegrass artist. The restrictive title didn't fit what he heard in his head, so he kept working, began singing and writing songs. Mr. Furtado has played with and opened for such renowned musicians as Alison Krauss, Keith Richards, and Taj Mahal. Now on his 14th album, "Deep Water," the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is realizing all of his musical abilities.
His banjo genius is still evident, but now Mr. Furtado also plays slide and electric guitars and dobro. He also sings. And his songs have substance, both sonically and lyrically.
The caloric string arrangements on "Deep Water" are moody and dense and form a solid base for the album's subject matter.
On his MySpace page, he wrote: "The album is a snapshot of my life and the world around me. Influences ranged from the politically charged air and environmentally changing world to the authors I was reading."
Perusing the song titles gives the impression that Mr. Furtado grapples with a life deeply lived. "Waste of the Moon," "Weight of the World," "Darkest Day," "All Comes Falling Down," indicate the results of his introspection.
Dense, gritty, and concise, "Deep Water" also reflects the authors Mr. Furtado was reading during the album's conception, poets actually: Wallace Stevens, Charles Bukowski, and Richard Wright. The influence of each is evident in the 14-song album.
"The Bawds of Euphony," the moody instrumental that opens "Deep Water," was inspired by Mr. Stevens's poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." As the intertwined strings gather and the riffs are repeated, new variations on a theme are suggested. As the song develops, the ear is given new ways of "looking."
The songs on "Deep Water," to use the title of another Wallace Stevens poem, deal with "The Plain Sense of Things," but the CD is not weighted down by its subject. Nor are Mr. Furtado's live performances. The power of his playing and energy of his voice hold back the doldrums. At times, his voice sounds like the smooth, round rock of James Taylor. At other times, such as in "Iron and Wine," the strings ache, but the effect is such that the songs ultimately are uplifting and deeply realized.
"Lighten Up Your Load" has an altogether different feel. It is muddy, and gritty. Whiskey vocals lean on a ZZ Top sounding slide guitar. If Charles Bukowski were alive, he'd be slapping his barstool.
Mr. Furtado will give Vineyarders a chance to slap along, too. Tonight he brings his vast talent to the Katharine Cornell Theatre for an 8 pm solo show. This is his first visit to Martha's Vineyard and is a must-see for aficionados of guitar and banjo playing. Alone, on stage with only his instrument, Mr. Furtado's full virtuosity will be on display.
It will be interesting to hear how he explores songs in unfettered live performance. The constraints of the studio, including arranging songs for accompanists, sometimes starve a song. Free to heap on serving after serving of his rich fingerpicking as the moment suggests, Mr. Furtado is sure to give a gratifying performance tonight.
Tony Furtado performs on Thursday, March 12, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven, $15. 508-221-6430.
Justen Ahren is a poet, songwriter, and freelance writing living in West Tisbury.