Stretching the Strings
A brilliant banjo-player becomes a brilliant singer-songwriter.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
The portentious title of Tony Furtado’s new album, Thirteen, hints at his preoccupation with the role of chance in determining one’s life course.
Good and bad luck are interesting themes for Furtado, considering that he’s in the midst of a willful and radical musical transformation. Many music fans still associate him with the 1980s progressive bluegrass scene, when the banjo master emerged as an instrumental force on Rounder Records.
But over the past decade, Furtado has sought to reinvent himself as a slide guitarist while exploring a myriad of musical paths. He toured with the American Gypsies, a jazzy Americana combo powered by the dynamic drummer Tom Brechtlein and as a duo with the Bay Area jazz drummer Scott Amendola.
Recently, Furtado has transformed himself into an Americana singer/songwriter with a knack for penning rootsy tales of working class angst. He celebrates the release of his new CD at Monterey Live on Tuesday with a trio featuring drummer Drew Shoals and the gifted, young electric bassist Damien Erskine (nephew of revered jazz drummer Peter Erskine).
Furtado describes his evolution from bluegrass wunderkind to thoughtful tunesmith as a mark of his musical maturity. “I grew up,” says Furtado, 39, from Portland, Ore. “When I first started recording for Rounder I was 20. It was all about technical prowess…more about the playing than the emotion.”
For longtime fans, that might seem like a harsh self-assessment. His early work may be marked by virtuosic bravado, but Furtado has been on a quest for an individual sound almost from the beginning of his musical career.
Born in Oakland and raised in Pleasanton, he started playing banjo at 12. After a couple of years at Cal State, Hayward, he dropped out to go on the road with Laurie Lewis and the Grant Street String Band. Playing folk festivals around North America, he encountered performers like Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt, and became obsessed with American roots music.
Furtado started recording a series of bluegrass albums for Rounder, including 1992’s Swamped and Within Reach, featuring luminaries like Alison Krauss. He co-founded the band Sugarbeat, incorporating Celtic and jazz elements. Then he experienced an epiphany while listening to Ry Cooder’s Paradise and Lunch. He headed back to Pleasanton, holed up for two years and dedicated himself to mastering slide guitar.
“I moved back in with mom and dad,” Furtado says. “I supported myself by playing every little coffee house and farmers market I could. It was great. I felt like Woody Guthrie.”
When he reemerged in Boulder in 1997, he recorded the scorching Roll My Blues Away. He’s been trying on various styles ever since, touring constantly and honing his songwriting chops. About two years ago, Furtado decided to take a break and settled in Portland. He found solo gigs and developed new material, including cover tunes like The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” both on the new CD.
“When I moved here I was going to take time off the road to focus on writing for the album,” Furtado says.
And Thirteen is consistently engaging. There’s his mock love song to booze “The Alcohol,” a bitter ode to an ex-lover “Another Man,” and “Thirteen Below,” a stark piece about the Sago mine disaster. Still, Furtado believes that his creative journey is only mid-flight.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where I feel that this is what I want to do with the rest of my life,” Furtado says. “Bob Dylan said if you ever feel that you’ve arrived, then you’re done.”
TONY FURTADO performs on Tuesday, 8pm at Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey. $15/adv; $17/door. 831-375-5483 or montereylive.net.