In my mind, Phil Keaggy is one of the most inconsistent artists around. His albums range from timeless classics (Beyond Nature, Sunday's Child) to albums so bland they only received a few spins (True Believer comes quickly to mind and just as quickly is forgotten). His latest album, Lights of Madrid, happily falls into the former group with over an hour of compelling, well-crafted acoustic guitar instrumentals that span genres, techniques, and moods. As you may have guessed from the album title, many, but not all, of the pieces show a Spanish influence. Those familiar with Spanish classical guitar will not be disappointed as Phil very capably tackles the legato scales and technical playing required for this genre. Those familiar with Keaggy himself already know that he is a guitar player's guitar player with amazing technical skills, virtuoso skills which often take backstage to the melody and the structure of the song. His best work marries the two, as is evidenced here.
The title track is, of course, very Spanish with an upbeat, catchy rhythm, excellent backing percussion, and a memorable melody that is worked into the amazing guitar playing. In stark contrast is the peaceful "A Field of Flowers" which is simply two acoustic guitars, a cello, and a beautifully emotive melody that would have fit perfectly on the phenomenal Beyond Nature. "Allgeria" consists of many layers of guitars, orchestral strings, and keyboards as a single melody is pursued by each. By combining contemporary songwriting with Hayden-era classical, Keaggy wrote the nine-minute "Overture" for acoustic guitar and chamber orchestra. Here the guitarist has created an amazingly mature classical composition with solid pacing and development of ideas, definitely on par or better than any classical piece written by his hero, Sir Paul McCartney. I could listen to music like this all day... and frequently have since this CD came into my possession. The album closes, aptly, with the return of the Spanish-themed "Caliente", energetic dance music with some ripping xylophone!
The huge variety of tone colors, instrumentation, and melody makes this album so much more than an hour of naked acoustic guitar. If you order now, you'll get an enhanced CD that actually makes sense! Embedded in this CD are detailed tablature transcriptions of twelve of the fifteen tracks, complete with lead and rhythm parts with the solos painstakingly written out. Even without this bonus, however, this album is the best thing Phil Keaggy has written in nearly a decade: an instant classic for guitar freaks and lovers of quality music alike.
This review first appeared in WhatzUp, April 2001.