curated by Todd Berryman

It’s amazing to me, sometimes, how a tragedy can make an album snap into focus for the listener. Take Rufus Wainwright’s Poses, released near the September 11th attacks. That was an album that became an unexpected comfort in those peculiar “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” moments in time, and it also gained stature later in other contexts.

Sometimes, separated from the zenith of an event, the love and understanding of something musical may start to diminish, but Poses was an album that remade itself again and again. It became an album of the ages for me, in a way I had no reason to expect at all.

This essay is NOT about that album. 🙂 (That may come in a future post.)

No, today, it’s this one:

Bruce Kaphan
Slider: Ambient Excursions for Pedal Steel Guitar (2001)
(The cover art on the left is the original issue, the right is the reissue version.)

A little backstory appropriate to this, first.

Bruce Kaphan was primarily known as the pedal steel guitar player in American Music Club, but he also did some amazing session work for the Black Crowes and Chris Isaak, among many other heavy hitters. (The Crowes’ “Wiser Time” really has a totally different flavor thanks to his input.) He also scored a film for Bob Dylan in the early 2000s. As a multi-instrumentalist, though, his time to really shine away from American Music Club was this solo album, Slider. (In fact, there’s only one guest appearance on the whole album, and the rest is him…more on this shortly.)

Now, anyone I mention the title Slider to will pretty much instantly think of White Castle hamburgers, and so there’s an urge to chuckle…but there’s nothing greasy about the playing on the album. The subtitle Ambient Excursions for Pedal Steel Guitar is a much more accurate assessment. It leans into country on occasion, but that’s not really the boilerplate of what he does. Realistically, it’s more reminiscent of the things David Gilmour would do on songs like “Breathe” for Pink Floyd; the flavor is much closer to space rock than anything else.

The roots of the style were pretty well established in his American Music Club days. A song like “Chanel #5” from the Rise extended play is a great example. His pedal steel is a ghostly presence right from the opening notes, but the best part is that mournful set of chord changes heading into the end of the song that serves as the perfect framing for the lyrics (happening at 3:07, 3:10, and 3:13), and then the buildup into that crashing, gorgeous ending (roughly 3:18 to 3:24) and then that whole rush of ambient texture he carries through to the conclusion, with that deliciously unresolved chord that wraps it all up.

Tragedy talk, now.

In early 2003, I was living all by my lonesome in an apartment in Bloomington, one that insisted on NOT using motorized vehicles. I was within walking distance to work at the time (not a mistake I would make again…), and so I would stay up late on Sunday and Monday nights. Mondays at 10pm on a local public radio station involved a show called Pipe Dreams, a pipe-organ themed show, pretty awesome in its own right, but Sundays…oh, Sundays! It was all about the show Music from the Hearts of Space. Space music (new age, but slower tempos), an hour at a time, at 10:05pm every Sunday night. I’d be practically WARPED to the couch, waiting to see what Stephen Hill would come up with during the show.

Early February 2003, I heard them repeat an episode one night, to memorialize the then-destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated on reentry on the first day of the month. (The show they played was the one from the mid-80s, when Challenger was destroyed.) A couple of weeks later, an episode called Electric Tears was played, a selection of guitar players of various stripes, and Bruce Kaphan’s album was part of the show. The track “Outpost” came up, and it was one of those moments, on a cold winter’s night, where a song just sunk in, hard. (Enough so that I used it as talkover music for the OverEasy program on WTTS for about five years, anyway.) There was a yearning quality to this free-tempo piece that hit me squarely in my heart, something I’ve never shaken off in the decade since.

It was part of a prolonged run of listening to Music from the Hearts of Space, week in and week out, and occasionally Pipe Dreams, same radio station, next day. Not every show was pure pleasure, but more often than not, they were. And the month of February was a great set of shows – and that’s where I travel back, in my mind, anytime that “Outpost” takes a bow on shuffle in the present. There’s no beat to dance to, you aren’t going to raise the roof, or try to figure out the changes on it, it’s simply an ocean of sound, filling the room and the mind. It’s one of those tracks that applies in any season for me, whether frosty clockworks overhead (to borrow a phrase from Richard Bach) in a post-winter solstice time, or coming up on the holiday season, or watching fireworks on a 4th of July night, the taste of this music always serves.

Within a month or so, I realized I needed to hear more of this work. Caved in, ordered the album online, and was not let down. There are other truly ambient pieces on Slider, if maybe more rhythmic, like “Back to the Light” – which I fell for at a technological level as well, with his pedal steel playing set up to trigger sitar samples, a completely mindblowing effect when I first heard it. Take a listen…

And there were more straightforward instrumentals, like this one, the one that has the only guest appearance on Slider…he sampled his cat Hannah, and used her as part of the percussion track. (She’ll be audible, low in the mix, starting at 45 seconds, and she’ll come up every other beat for the rest of the track.)

In case you’ve wondered, it isn’t all about the tech to accomplish the goal, however. Kaphan also runs nicely in acoustic environments. Take his lap steel backdrop on this song…and also alternating the lead with his pedal steel work.

To me, this is the perfect example of music that doesn’t necessarily need focus, but does reward it. And I’m surprised as much as anyone else by this: pedal steel was not an instrument I had much love for, growing up. It was an example of a style of country music that I couldn’t quite buy into, the language of cliché, nothing I had an interest in…and then, surprise, I discovered people that worked the instrument in ways that I’d never expected, like Bruce Kaphan, or B.J. Cole (who graced “Right Down the Line” by Gerry Rafferty), or Buddy Cage’s playing on Dylan’s “Meet Me in the Morning” with an unexpected bile that I never knew the instrument was capable of.

Slider: Ambient Excursions for Pedal Steel Guitar was the logical extension of that style that subverted country conventions, and turned them on their head, and brought the instrument into a new era, for which I will always be appreciative, and thankful.

Further research:

“Wiser Time” by the Black Crowes, from what I’ve considered one of their two best albums, Amorica. There is a brilliant, space-filling aspect of this track that telegraphs the work on Slider perfectly, if you listen for it. (And apologies: it’s the original cover art pictured in this video, so DON’T BLAME ME.)

And, just to give you examples of pedal steel players who don’t follow the typical vibe of the instrument, here’s Buddy Cage wreaking havoc on Bob Dylan, on his Blood on the Tracks album. This take was a result of Dylan asking him to do an overdub, not being thrilled by what he’d played in previous takes (to the point that Dylan ripped the cables out of the instrument leading to Cage’s amplifier), and Cage deciding to piss him off by ramping up the distortion and attitude…which led to EXACTLY what Dylan was looking for (most specifically at 3:30 in this clip)…

And something from B.J. Cole on “Right Down the Line” by Gerry Rafferty, from City to City (at this point, he was still being credited as “Brian Cole” on the album). He’s pretty much in evidence right from the beginning on this song, and also appears at the instrumental solo.

And another one, at the point when he started being credited as “B.J. Cole” on albums. Don’t be fooled by the electronic setting on this song by David Gray. He comes into the mix around :48 in this song, but really ramps up in the solo, around 2:19.

B.J. Cole also gets off some great parts on this song by John Cale, from the 1996 album Walking on Locusts.

He’s got many other great credits, including albums by Spiritualized (Ladies and Gentlemen…We Are Floating in Space in 1997) and multiple albums by Sting, all worth the time. 🙂

Finally, one of the pioneers in the ambient rock pedal steel style, David Gilmour.


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