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Dubious Tones by Steve Cunningham

Steve Cunningham’s Dubious Tones showcases his wide-ranging abilities and ambition: He’s the group’s leader, composed nearly all the material, plays electric guitar, lap steel, acoustic lap steel, slide dobro, nylon string guitar, and the styles covered range from blues to jazz, country, rock, Americana, etc.... While not essential listening, one senses this young guitarist from Rochester, NY may well distill his abilities/interests into a mature voice within the decade. He’s definitely got all the right ingredients, but the cake is still in the oven.

The main styles Cunningham is trying to meld are country, rock, and blues. While he has obviously gotten many chops together in each separate area, they rarely come off as being thoroughly internalized. The parts of the record which are most successful come when he attempts less genre-hopping with his playing, and spends more time on his writing. When Cunningham follows his ear, his writing leads to interesting places, and his playing follows suit. This comes through on the track titled "Hemp." One of the things elevating this track above the others is the strong melody. It’s beautiful and haunting, recalling (to me) the title track of the film Dead Man Walking: "Eyes of Love." The sparse instrumentation (just acoustic lap steel, percussion, and occasional voice doubling melody) and honing of style on this cut enable more focused playing. It’s a great little piece.

When considering his melding of multiple styles, and the use of 2-3 different guitars on a single track, Cunningham does better when sticking to one thing at a time. Less is definitely more here. When he pares down and pays more attention to melody and composition, he comes through beautifully. Two other standout tunes are "Backtalk" and "Peace." "Backtalk" would fit well in an Allman Brothers instrumental set and "Peace" is the most successful jazz piece on the CD (not the Horace Silver tune). Again, both of these tunes benefits from more attention to composition and melody, in addition to Cunningham focusing on one instrument. Some of the other melodies on the CD feel like afterthoughts to a particular groove or form, and that’s where the music becomes less interesting.

The rest of the players give excellent support to Cunningham. In particular Randy Hoexter on organ lays down some sweet pads and blows some nice solos. If Cunningham works hard and keeps going in the direction of this record, he could become a voice to seek out in the style of the great current guitarist Duke Levine. While we watch what happens, listening to this recording definitely elicits a few "dubious" pleasures.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Steve Cunningham
  • CD Title: Dubious Tones
  • Genre: Soul / Funk Jazz
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: Independent
  • Tracks: BruddaBru, Dubious Tones, Hemp, Sphere’s Blues, Busted Lip, The Creeping Man, Backtalk, Rhythm-a-ning, Peace, She Never Knew, How Great Thou Art, America
  • Musicians: Steve Cunningham (electric guitar, nylon guitar, lap steel, slide dobro, acoustic slide); Brian Hall (bass); Mike Haid (drums); Randy Hoexter (keyboards); Bob Lewis (trumpet, trombone); Sam Skelton (tenor saxophone); David Silverman (percussion); Gwen Hughes (voice)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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