El McMeen

Piney Ridge Music, 2000

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


It is not unusual for me to get several e-mails a day asking me to review bands - usually these come from groups who are looking to get their names in print to help move them to the next step in their careers. While I'm always happy to do this, it's impossible to respond to every request, and with the work schedule I now have, it's even harder for me to fit in all the discs I want to listen to and review.

So when I first saw I had an e-mail from El McMeen, I didn't think too much of it. When I finally got to it a few hours after it arrived, McMeen reminded me just who he was... and at that point, there was no way I'd refuse the request to review his latest disc, El McMeen Live.

You see, some months ago I had the privilege of listening to and reviewing two discs of Celtic fingerstyle guitar music that were released by Rounder; they're two volumes I highly suggest you rush out and buy if you like to hear masters of their craft. McMeen was one of the featured musicians on the set who knew how to breathe new life into such standards as "O Danny Boy," making them sound like it was the first time you'd ever heard the song.

This disc does more of the same - and then some. Recorded in an intimate setting - almost as if it was recorded amongst friends, McMeen sounds totally at ease as he explains in detail background on the music he selected for the evening as well as sharing some humor with the crowd.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

McMeen continues to show why he's one of the world's finest fingerstyle guitarists with some of the Celtic-influenced songs performed on El McMeen Live. Songs like "Pretty Maid Milking A Cow," "Mo Giolla Mear" and "Be Thou My Vision / Hyfrydol" all demonstrate McMeen's power using only six metal strings and a shaped piece of wood, and his ability to make the instrument sing like no other voice you've ever heard.

But McMeen also broadens his horizons past what even I would have expected. He launches into a cover of The Eagles's "Desperado" that is so close to the bone that it might even make you forget about the original for a few minutes. It's almost as if the song has been waiting for this kind of a translation. The same goes for an older folk song, "Guantanamera," which I grew up hearing as elevator music and grew to hate. However, McMeen actually made me interested in this song again - and if you knew how strongly I feel about this particular number, you'd know that's no small feat.

McMeen's humor is interspersed within his playing, as evidenced by "The Saga Of 'Doo-Dah'". The central theme is the old folk song "Camptown Races," but McMeen tells how he tried to continue playing a song his wife was tired of hearing by juxtaposing it into several different styles. On one side, it's a hilarious piece as McMeen is foiled in every attempt to keep playing "Doo-Dah" as his wife recognizes the song hidden in the new arrangement. (Memo to McMeen: I caught the "Al-Di-La" sample you put in the last "Doo-Dah" arrangement; that's the benefit of growing up with my parents listening to the Ray Charles Singers.) On the other hand, McMeen makes the style switches sound so effortless that it makes me want to smash my guitars, knowing I'll never be that good.

McMeen closes this disc with a vocal rendition of "What A Wonderful World" (the Sam Cooke version, not Louis Armstrong), making me wonder why he hasn't done more work in the vocal department. It's a fitting way to wrap up an incredible disc.

Complaints? I have but two. First, the obvious - if I could have, I'd have crammed as much music as a CD can hold onto this thing. No matter how many times I've listened to El McMeen Live, I keep finding myself wanting to hear more. The other minor note is occasionally I heard a change in audio quality when going from spoken introduction to McMeen's performances - almost as if he snipped an intro from one day to a performance from another. Still, this is a minor point.

I lent this disc to someone, and they came back to me asking where they could buy more of McMeen's music. That's not an uncommon reaction when you hear someone so good performing music so beautiful. El McMeen Live proves that he belongs in the list of best guitarists alive today - and it makes me wonder how long it will be before McMeen becomes a household name.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2000 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Piney Ridge Music, and is used for informational purposes only.