Way back in 1983 before every Tom, Dick and Jane had their own giga-track digital home studio, a persistent cabal of musicians and engineers hobbled together their own studios out of outdated studio gear, jute twine and sheer ingenuity.
One of these illuminati was world-renowned guitarist Phil Keaggy. Using the revolutionary Teac 144 Porta-Studio (a massive bit of machinery giving the user a whopping four tracks of glorious tape hiss) and a converted basement, Keaggy recorded his first “fan club” album, Underground. Being limited to four tracks (a bit more if you bounce, but this isn’t a technical manual) really makes the artist distill the music to it’s essence. Most of these songs consist of guitar, bass, keyboards, a few vocal parts and drum machine. Before you recoil in disgust, remember that it was 1983 and, although everyone was in fact doing it, Keaggy had the foresight to not attempt to make these early, limited rhythm machines sound like a drummer ... usually.
One thing I had forgotten about this album is the number of intricate, very well recorded bass lines. “Paid In Full”, just one of many instrumental delights, is one example, as is “What A Love,” which features some great guitar work and Beatlesque vocal harmonies. It was good to hear such longtime favorites as “One In A Million,” a love song to his wife with a catchy chorus melody against some gritty rock guitars;,and “Think About It,” whose use of clinking bottles in the complicated rhythm section and spooky minor key melody will ensure a good crop of goose bumps. If any two songs are known from this album they would be “The Two of You,” a nice wedding song free of the usual clichés, and “The Survivor,” an epic pro-life song arranged with only voice, acoustic guitar and light keyboards.
Like any re-release worth its weight in plastic, two unreleased tracks are included: “A Glorious Sunset,” a pleasant instrumental straight off The Wind And The Wheat; and “When I Say I Love You,” a nice love song to his daughter.
For years I had to make do with a taped copy from a record borrowed from a friend, so having these gems in digital splendor is nice. It does, however, reveal the limitations of the source material, that being a standard cassette tape. This is not to say that the recordings sound awful, just a bit restrained in their sonic scope. This “limitation” may also result from the music not being squashed and processed “to the max” like today’s Pro-Tools-engineered music. Regardless of whatever sonic limitations may or may not exist, what really shines through is Keaggy’s warmth and enthusiasm. These songs were originally recorded at leisure as gifts to share with immediate family members and close friends. As such, there is a freedom and confidence within that gives them lasting appeal, even close to 20 years later.
While much of Keaggy’s music appeals only to guitarists, the songs on Underground are so fresh and accessible that I urge all lovers of classic rock to visit www.philkeaggy.com and order a copy for your collection.
This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 2002.