Volume 12, Issue 13 ~ March 25-31, 2004

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Pugh's Reviews
by Matthew Pugh

Bryan Ewald in Three Time
A blend of Clapton prowess and Harrison uniqueness make him one of the best and most prolific players in the area.

Guitarists are a dime a dozen. Exceptionally great guitarists are not as copious. What makes a guitarist great — above all other characteristics — is a combination of technique and sound.

Take Eric Clapton for example. His speed, fingering and other technical skills are marvels to behold. But what’s equally impressive about Clapton’s playing is its ability to be recognized by ear alone. When I hear Clapton, I know it. Watching him is an added bonus.

There are guitarists — like the Beatles’ George Harrison — who don’t share Clapton’s godly gifts but shimmer just as brightly. Harrison isn’t fast or fancy, but his songwriting, chord choices and bold experimentation make his music identifiable and him a great guitarist.

A blend of Clapton prowess and Harrison uniqueness has been captured by Annapolis-based guitarist Bryan Ewald, making him one of the best and most prolific players in the area.

Performing for over a dozen years, Ewald is virtually stalked around Bay Country by musicians wanting to fuse his chops into their lineup. A helluva nice guy and always exploring different musical avenues, Ewald spreads his talents in bands across the East Coast, but he has his heart in three local gigs. The first is with the Jarflys every Tuesday night at Armadillos in downtown Annapolis.

The Jarflys are the brainchild of Jimmie’s Chicken Shack front man Jimi Davies. The Jarflys sextet — who sound nothing like the Shack — features Ewald on lead-guitar/vocals, Davies on lead-vocals/guitar, Noel White on drums/vocals, Larry Melton on bass, Jon Gillespie on keys and Junior Brice on saxophone.

Ewald has about six electric guitars in his rotation, but lately he has favored a black 1962 Fender Telecaster with orange sunburst. The Telecaster’s distinctive whine melds well with the Jarflys, who have been bitten by a species of jam-band bug.

In keeping with the group’s free-formed manner — if that’s possible — Ewald uses a Wah-Wah pedal, Vibrator, Delay, Fuzz, Compressor and other effects to paint ethereal colors over the group’s tunes.

With extended sections throughout, these tunes give Ewald soloing carte blanche. His leads bounce from light, pizzicato tickling to heavy string bending. Every note he plays counts. None of his movements is taken for granted.

Proving his diversity, Ewald mixes a slide and volume swells with finger picking and harmonics. His fluidity reveals an unconscious and even instinctual understanding of music’s holiness. Teases from the Allman Brothers tune Jessica and Led Zeppelin’s The Ocean show respect for the people who inspired him to step on stage.

My only gripe about Ewald with the Jarflys is too little volume. A guitarist with his touch needs to be turned up so listeners can appreciate his phrasing.

Ewald’s plays a second gig at Armadillos every Thursday night with local vocal queen and long-time collaborator Meg Murray. This gig is simple and stripped down, featuring only the duet and Ewald’s Martin DM acoustic.

Smoke, spirit scents and folks unafraid of Friday hangovers fill Dillo’s upstairs room. Like a jukebox, Ewald’s volume level is perfectly mixed in the fore and background, not forced on the audience. I could converse without yelling, or fall deeply into the music if I preferred.

Lending to the atmosphere’s flow, Ewald moves through a ridiculously large repertoire, covering everything from Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder and Tower of Power to Coldplay, Radio Head and Ben Folds Five.

Relaxed best describes Ewald’s approach in this forum. His obvious familiarity with venue does not detract from his performance, however. Ewald plays his DM crisply and smoothly. His annotation, metronome-like timing and speed travel far beyond the skills of most barroom strummers.

Ewald knows his instrument, too. Rarely does he scramble around the body or neck for notes or tone. He hardly ever glances at his hands, and he never looses his cool when flubbing a lick.

His voice — while not booming — is warm and resonates with slight nasal charm. It is affective alone, and more so intertwined with Murray’s.

This weekly session is enjoyed by both guitar enthusiasts and extended happy-hour chasers alike. After watching Ewald, both usually say, “damn, that guy’s good.”

Good, too, is Ewald’s third focus, Starbelly — a three-piece original pop-rock band featuring him on guitar/vocals, Dennis Schocket on bass/vocals and Greg Schroeder on drums/vocals.

I abhor most pop music because its quality and message tend to exist solely on the surface. But Starbelly has successfully fused pop characteristics with deeper musical concepts, offering a choice of easy listening or introspective exploration.

Ewald does not stand out with Starbelly but rather lends a crucial supporting role. Without him, the band would lack the careful guitaring and vocal wherewithal to produce their sound.

Tons of over-dubbing and orchestration create an audio wall that would shoot, er, blow Phil Spector’s mind. With tight three-part harmonies and an Aquarius-age tone, Starbelly — minus a fourth — oozes likeness to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver albums.

Starbelly has a penchant for the studio and doesn’t perform as often as Ewald’s others groups. They can be caught at Armadillos occasionally as well as at other area venues. Their latest album, Every Day And Then Some, is in local record stores.

If you’re fortunate enough to have seen greats like Clapton or Harrison, then do yourself a solid and check out Ewald. Ewald won’t be selling out the MCI Center anytime soon, but he impresses me just the same.

Track Ewald at www.bryanewald.com.

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Last updated March 25, 2004 @ 2:37am.