Bad Influences: Steve Tibbetts

Do you ever come across an artist who, on first listen, you find yourself asking “why the hell have I never heard this person’s work before”? This happened to me recently when I stumbled upon the music of Steve Tibbetts while staying in Berlin.

So, if I like this musician, why am I talking about ‘bad influences’? Well, it’s complex. For me, a bad influence is actually a really good thing. Confused? Me too. That’s the point.

Lets try to clarify. For my purposes here, a ‘bad influence’ is someone who does things in a way that challenges you to rethink how you approach listening to and making music. It’s not that you like everything they do. On the contrary. I don’t approach making music in the way that Steve Tibbetts does, nor could I. And I certainly have issues listening to some of his output: there’s a tendency to sacrifice melody for tonality which can make things repetitive over the course of an album.

But, in all honestly, after listening to The Fall of Us All, I don’t think I can hear music in the same way again. My familiar and ever-so-comfortable points of departure and arrival seem to have been irrevocably lost. And that’s the essence of what I’m talking about here.

Previous ‘bad influences’ of mine include Pharoah Sanders (the Thembi album with particular reference to ‘Red, Black and Green’) and John McLaughlin’s first Mahavishnu Orchestra album, Inner Mounting Flame. At first listen I simply couldn’t work out if I loved or hated them. But I immediately knew that things had changed. My frame of reference for all things music had shifted, my coordinates were scattered. More than a gentle nudge of the dial, they had been given a full on kick in the balls. I was reeling and disorientated because these artists quite literally blew my mind. Pharoah Sanders did it with a cacophony of saxophone screams that gave a musical form to outraged emotion; John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham let loose with their bombastic odd-metered fusion explosion that left me wondering what planet they recorded the disk on.

Even now, when I put those albums on, I still don’t know whether I really like them. But I’m darn certain that I love them because, quite honestly, they changed me as a person.

So where does Steve Tibbetts fit into this register? Steve is certainly not a classic rock player. He’s perhaps best described as a ‘soundscape artist’ who works by bringing various guitar tones into a head-on collision with walls of percussion. A supremely accomplished player on both acoustic and electric guitars, his tracks move from sublime 12-string melodies to feedback laced screams, often in the span of seconds.

On the ECM blurb for his album, The Fall of Us All (nice title!), Steve’s music is described in the rather overstated manner of: “Jimi Hendrix in a weather-beaten bark canoe, paddling upriver through a light curtain of rain in an Asian jungle”. Normally I’d immediately ignore such hyperbole, but here they just may have a point.

Tibbetts, to be sure, has done a range of work in his musical career, including extremely well respected collaborations with Buddhist nun Ani Choying Drolma. He also travels to record percussionists across the world, incorporating those sounds (suitably transformed) into his soundscapes. His latest album, Natural Causes, is purely acoustic, and revels in subtlety.

However, what sticks in my mind is precisely his more brazen work such as Exploded View and The Fall of Us All. If someone like Steve Tibbetts takes Jimi Hendrix through an Asian jungle, how can we use this new, post-jungle Jimi in re-inventing classic rock? Is it even possible?

I’m not sure. But I’m certain the efforts involved are worthwhile even if they lead nowhere. Sometimes, nowhere is a good place to be! On that score, here’s two possible bad influences from Tibbetts for the futures of classic rock:

1) Can we temporarily displace our emphasis on coherent song forms to embrace some of the anarchy that someone like Tibbetts revels in with his soundscapes? In short, can we mess with our comfort zone in terms of musical structure? If so, where can we do it – just in an intro to a song or more widely? At what point does the lack of coherence become a burden, rather than liberating?

2) What can we learn about tone from someone like Tibbetts? The innovative musician Bill Brozman once noted that most modern guitarists have little sense of timbre, preferring to conform to a relative standardization of what is considered “good tone”. Someone like Tibbetts, however, takes creating unorthodox timbre to a whole new level, on both acoustic and electric axes. I think some of the defining mavericks of classic rock have done this: Jimi, of course; Jeff Beck, without doubt. In a world of digital sound manipulation, what frontiers are opening up in this sense and where can we take them?

Lots of questions here, and very few answers from me. But that’s the way it should be. I’ll continue to work with these – and other themes – as I write more in this series of ‘Bad Influences’. But, for now, I look forward to reading any reader thoughts in the comments section.

As for a finale, I think I’ll let Robert Cray sum it all up here. Enjoy 😉

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3 thoughts on “Bad Influences: Steve Tibbetts

  1. I can’t describe Mike Oldfield’s “Amarok” as anything other than a good influence on me. Many of my friends, patiently sitting through the full 60m02s of its chaotic stylistic handbrake turns, would disagree. I don’t know whether its influence shows subtly in any of the darker corners my writing, but it definitely falls into the category of changing fundamentally the way I think about music.

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