His hair may now be trimmed to a buzz, and his flowered jackets replaced by Rambo fatigues, but Michael Hedges still has the look of a man in disguise--a folk rocker in Windham Hill clothes.
His opening set at the Roxy on Tuesday night was a study in the Jekyll/Hyde transformations that have characterized Hedges' music from the beginning. Moody, floating pieces alternated with ferociously rhythmic strumming and better than serviceable vocals. But there was little that could accurately be described as Windham Hill New Age.
A brilliant acoustic guitarist in the tradition of Leo Kottke, John Fahey and John Renbourne, Hedges has reached a point in his development where he is pushing against the limits of the instrument itself.
Slapping, finger picking, stroking, tapping--using different tunings for nearly every piece--Hedges' rhythms virtually exploded out of his guitars. On the title piece from his new album "Live on the Double Planet" he switched to the harp guitar (with its additional bass strings strung on a harp-like appendage), adding a temblor-level bottom to his cascading strums.
Risking all, he sang Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" and Lennon and McCartney's "Come Together," bringing new vigor and life to two fading icons of the '60s.
If there was a problem with the program, it was the inevitable lack of focus. Hedges does so many things so well that his talent too often seems to be flying in all directions.
Tuesday night's program suggested that it may be time for Hedges to take his game up another level, beyond eccentric brilliance and into widespread recognition.
KEVIN EUBANKS TRIO
Kevin Eubanks can probably play faster with four strings on his guitar than most players can with six. And it's a good thing he's got speed to rely on, because his opening-night performance at Catalina's Bar and Grill on Tuesday was as short on planning as it was long on sheer talent.
Abandoning the carefully produced, commercially sensitive style that has characterized his recent GRP albums (including the just-released "The Heat of the Heat"), Eubanks instead elected to lead his trio in what appeared to be purely spontaneous musical sets.
Sometimes the decision worked out fine. When it did, the interaction between Eubanks, drummer Gene Jackson and (especially) bassist Rael Wesley Grant verged on the telepathic, with Eubanks and Grant flashing through sequence after sequence of fiery octave runs without so much as a note out of place.
Jackson responded, not only with miraculously accurate accents but with judicious rests as well. He was content, as are few drummers, to punctuate and underline with silence as well as sound.
As the evening wore on, however, the impromptu character of the playing became less appealing. Often, Jackson and Grant appeared to be uncertain about where Eubanks was heading and, like a leaderless flock, the music became directionless, moving this way and that in fits and spurts.
Occasionally, a theme or two surfaced--"Sundance," from Eubanks' second album; various blues permutations--but more often the music accelerated, slowed, stopped and started for no apparent reason.
Eubanks' desire to give a live performance that is notably more creative than his commercial albums is certainly commendable. But even a talent as large as this needs a framework around which to grow and build.
Eubanks continues at Catalina's through today.