The first time I saw Joey Eppard play, he was a kid packing the local music clubs with an early incarnation of his band 3 and playing what struck me then as a particularly keen and edgy variation on the School-of-Dave style – Matthews, that is: a driving, funk-inflected acoustic rock. I was thus surprised to learn, years later, that 3 had been recast and reborn as a full-fledged progressive art-metal band (to the extent that any metal band can be fronted by an acoustic guitarist), and that Eppard had teamed with some former members of Peacebomb, one of the most memorable, adventurous and indefinable rock bands ever to originate in the mid-Hudson Valley.
That 3 has found considerable success in this genre (touring extensively with Dream Theater, than whom they are about 100 times more interesting and musical) comes as no surprise whatsoever. The ferocity of Eppard’s talent and commitment has been evident from Day One. Eppard’s latest move is not one that you would call timid: Joey Eppard LIVE, a DVD of a 29-song, mostly solo performance before a small audience at Woodstock’s Nevessa Studio. It is a high-end production and design, professionally shot and edited, pristinely recorded and mixed, intimate in its tenor but played and sung with outsized passion and virtuosity.
I have no reservations about calling Joey Eppard a virtuoso. I am harder-pressed to say at what, exactly. Eppard’s talent is a self-invented, category-of-one totality. You get the feeling that, as advanced and evolved as his skill set is, he is really only capable of being himself – this thing dreamed up obsessively in a bedroom somewhere. It’s a virtuosity of pure idiosyncrasy.
His tap-and-slap, open-tuning acoustic guitar technique may remind you of the percussive, polyrhythmic style of Matthews or Ani DiFranco, but Eppard has gone elsewhere with it: somewhere between flamenco and Metallica. It is easy to be impressed by the precise and flawless execution of this novel technique, but it is his raw musicality – the sweeping, self-sufficient groove and subtle touch – that makes him such an astonishing self-accompanist.
The band 3 made its name plying the epic forms, hazy spiritualism and sneakers-in-a-dryer complications of the prog genre, but Eppard’s identity as a songwriter is not so easy to peg. Alongside the droning, modal and arabesque harmonies of dark prog, we find a lovely undercurrent of Beatles-derived functional harmony and lithe, graceful melody. We can still hear some traces of Mrazzy groove/pop in songs like “You Call Me Baby” – at least before it is derailed by the kind of disruptive, angular bridge that would never trouble a Dave Matthews Band jam.
As a lyricist, Eppard somehow manages to balance the “girls & stuff” essentials of pop with the high- and mid-falutin’ socio-psychological, dystopian obsessions that have always been the domain of prog. Some of his best lyrics are his least assuming, such as the simply lovely dream ballad “Puddle.” But when he tries his hand at larger political and mystical themes, he is hardly overmatched. If your tastes in songcraft “go there,” you will not be disappointed by any facet of his songwriting game.
All of this makes Eppard a bit of a musical riddle, a major and fully realized talent beyond dispute (even if you don’t always “go there”), but a bit out of place and out of time. You could almost see him being embraced by the new Brooklyn art-rock audience of St. Vincent, Dirty Projectors or Grizzly Bear, were “prog” not a dirty word there. On the other hand, even though he is the scion of a universally respected Woodstock roots cat, Jimmy Eppard, Joey’s thing doesn’t exactly make sense in the Land-of-Levon either. So take a deep breath, check your genre biases and associations and enjoy Eppard for what he is – which is to say a high master at being nothing but himself.
Is a 29-song solo DVD survey of his career achievement thus far warranted? You bet. I dare you not to be moved and impressed.
Joey Eppard LIVE DVD release solo concert, Saturday, March 30, 9 p.m., $10 (includes DVD discount), Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, visit www.bearsvilletheater.com.