Sunday, September 11, 2005

Bill Kirchen @ Black Swamp

When he took the stage on Saturday at the Black Swamp Arts Festival in Bowling Green, Ohio, staring into a blazing late afternoon sun, Bill Kirchen looked like just another guy with a Telecaster.


Kirchen is the guy with a Telecaster. From the wood to the wires, he owns that instrument.

His hour-plus set ripped open a 55-gallon drum of dieselbilly guitar whoop-ass, pouring out enough truckin' songs, too-much-drinkin' songs and ain't-seen-my-baby songs to rouse the sun-baked crowd out of its stupor.

Kirchen's country-fried guitar picking draws on the broad spectrum of American music, combining jazz, blues, bluegrass, western swing, rock-and-roll and anything else you can imagine. The result is a seamless, spot-on perfect blend of inspired, precisely executed fills, turn-arounds and jaw-dropping solos. All this is delivered with the surprising ease of a man who has no idea that he is working miracles.

Too Much Fun, Kirchen's rhythm section, consists of Claude Arthur on bass, and Dave Elliott on drums. Kirchen, Arthur and Elliot play as if their brains are hardwired together. Somehow you shouldn't be able to divide that much sound by a factor of only three, but then math was never my strong suit.

Kirchen is a player's player, one of those musicians other musicians go out of their way to see. In the realm of popular music he is best known for his early-seventies stint with Commmander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. Kirchen's guitar work on Commander Cody's cover of the Johnny Bond hit Hot Rod Lincoln didn't make Kirchen a household name, but it made everyone forget about Johnny Bond.

Kirchen closed his set at Black Swamp with an extended version of the classic car song, turning it into a dieselbilly travelogue, an encyclopedia of hooks and guitar licks from more than half a century of rock, country, and pop. He covered it all, everything from Duane Eddy's Rebel Rouser and Cream's Sunshine of Your Love to effortless, respectful reproductions of the playing styles of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Merle Travis, Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, Freddy King, Albert King and a host of others whose names appear on the utterly pointless Rolling Stone list of The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

Signing CDs and talking with fans after the set, Kirchen was warm, friendly and unassuming, an unlikely guitar god with nothing to prove.

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