I don’t get asked “Who’s your favorite rock guitarist?” nearly often enough. I have an answer – a crafted koan of an answer that both satisfies and confounds the asking, exposing deep pools of aesthetic and cultural theory if you fix your attention on its paradoxes long enough. Your loss. It’s embarrassing to have to interview yourself all the time. Socrates without a willing boy is just another crazy man.
The young, in-demand guitarist and producer Blake Mills plays at the Bearsville Theater on Friday, July 24, still supporting his exceptional 2014 solo outing Heigh Ho. Although he is appearing here in his identity as a (very worthy) self-producing singer/songwriter, Mills represents the first real threat to upset my stock answer to that guitar question in several decades. I will be taking the long road back to the subject of Mills, so let’s get the awkward straw-man part of this “dialogue” rolling, shall we?
“Hey John, who is your favorite rock guitarist ever?”
Thanks for asking. I don’t have a favorite rock guitarist ever. That’s why my favorite rock guitarist ever is Dave Gregory.
The non-songwriting member of the British New Wave/progressive pop band XTC, Gregory was once called by majority songwriter Andy Partridge the “icing chief,” the tricky bits player, the one whose imaginative, chameleonic and historically informed finish work elevated the band’s (arguably) hit-and-miss songwriting into the deliriously musical and original stuff that it is.
Like any candidate for favorite rock guitarist, “Gregsy” has chops – way more than you or me, most likely – but you really have to sample a broad cut of the material to appreciate them. He demurs the guitar-god role (except when playing it for a purpose), privileging the song and the arrangement at every turn. He acts like a natural-born composer/arranger who happens to be occupying the lead guitar chair.
Dig: There’s a subtle-but-critical perspective difference between asking, “What would I do on guitar here?” and “What would I have the guitar do here?” Gregory embodies the latter more than any player I can think of (though I can hear the calls of “Johnny Marr!” “Jon Brion!” and “Nels Cline!” right outside my window). It helps that Gregory has all the moves and colors under his fingers, so if the answer is “something that Neil Young would do,” no sweat. If the answer is “something that Darius Milhaud would do,” no sweat either. As a result, XTC just has better details than most bands, no matter what you think of the songs.
I hardly even think of him as a guitarist, so instrument-agnostic is his vision, so independent of the dialects and limits of the guitar. He plays all the fancy keyboards too, and if you know XTC’s critically decorated 1986 album Skylarking, think of the McCartney-meets-Anton Webern string quartet song “1,000 Umbrellas.” That’s Partridge on guitar, but it’s Gregory’s string arrangement: a bit of chamber art so tense, articulate and outlandishly musical that it exposes all the rest of Todd Rundgren’s pandering and hackneyed orchestrations on the album for what they are. So Dave Gregory is my, uh, “favorite rock guitarist ever.”
Enter Blake Mills. This phenomenal sideman/producer/singer/songwriter from Malibu has a nickname. It’s “the Best Guitarist in the World.” Don’t expect a find a playlist of pyrotechnic YouTube videos to convince you of it. They don’t exist, nor should they. Perhaps you’d be happier with some six-year-old “blues prodigy” doing a real swell Bonamassa impersonation, or the Suzuki Method girl who shreds a Flying V at impossible BPMs? Is that how you will find your next Lama?
(Come to your senses: Please stop spreading those horrible memes. If it is too late for you, do it for the children, for those poor young “mindblowing virtuosos.” Let them take their lumps playing real music with real people, and maybe save them from the life of the one-trick circus freak who has to be the center of attention or nothing at all. Would you want that kid playing on your song? Thought not. More often than not, musical greatness lies in sublimating the self, not glorifying it. /rant)
Enter Blake Mills, again. You’d want him to play on your song. You’d probably want him to arrange, produce and write it too. But to appreciate the scope of this guy’s talent, you really need to sample a broad cut of the all the diverse music in which he has been involved. Some of it is roots/rock and country, some electropop, some prog/folk, some Afro-Cuban. It’s a slow burn, this epiphany, but when you find yourself asking, “Sh*t, who’s playing that?” (“Who arranged that?” “Who produced that?”) and the answer comes back “Blake Mills” time and time again, the light dawns. You don’t waste a second of your precious time worrying about his incendiary chops; you just gasp at the imagination, beauty and range of his ideas and his heartbreaking tone, feel and control, and how, from the guitar chair, he makes everything better, he makes everything happen. This is a master – a Lama, in fact – possessed of authentic values and a preternatural maturity.
There is one shortcut to appreciating Mills’s genius, though you might have missed your chance. You had to see him live with Fiona Apple on one of their recent co-headliner tours. Words cannot describe how breathtakingly exquisite his accompaniment was on those dates, and that is not something that I am in the habit of saying, for if I were I’d be out of a job.
Don’t take my word for it; take the word of Lucinda Williams, Jesca Hoop, Neil Diamond, Alabama Shakes, Diana Krall, Connor Oberst, Norah Jones, Kid Rock, the Avett Brothers, Lucius, Ozomatli, Eric Clapton, Dawes, Julian Casablancas, Weezer, Jenny Lewis, Bruce Hornsby, Joshua Radin, Jeff Bridges and Lisa Marie Presley.
Better yet, do me a favor and don’t even take their word. I have done a grave disservice to Blake Mills in this article. At the Bearsville, he won’t be sticking his extraordinary guitar-playing in your face; he never does, in fact, but this A+-list player/producer, whose batphone never stops ringing, has chosen the rough road of the roots singer/songwriter in a vastly oversaturated market. Start your journey with his solo album Heigh Ho. Over the course of its 12 exquisitely written, arranged and produced chamber/roots tracks, you will have your Blake Mills moment; I guarantee it.
Blake Mills performs at the Bearsville Theater on Friday, July 24 at 9 p.m. Tickets cost $18 in advance, $20 on the day of the show. For more information, visit www.bearsvilletheater.com. The Bearsville Theater is located at 291 Tinker Street in Woodstock.
Blake Mills w/Sam Outlaw, Friday, July 24, 9 p.m., $18/$20, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; www.bearsvilletheater.com.