Michael WoodsMichael Woods
Album: Bottleneck Ahead
Label: Peckers
Tracks: 14

Readers will doubtless already know something of Michael's music through his being invited to be a part of the Fatea Showcase Summer 2014 CD (Magnetism). After which, the following year, he won the James Hill trophy for the second time with an original composition. Michael's a Tyneside-based guitarist of high professional standing, who's brilliantly well versed in a wide range of disciplines (notably fingerpicking, ragtime, bottleneck and blues). His three CD releases thus far (dating from 1998, 2009 and 2014 respectively) have each showcased a different aspect of his talent, with the last, East Coast Fret, providing a particularly satisfying sequence of original solo guitar instrumentals which by all accounts had appeal well outwith the blues community.

For album number four, Michael drives his guitar well and truly down what might to the casual outsider seem a bit of a musical cul-de-sac: the disc's a typically catchily titled, what-it-says-on-the-tin record of music and songs rendered exclusively on bottleneck/slide guitar (albeit played in five different tunings, on three different instruments - Regal resonator, dobro, and, on one track, a 12-string acoustic model). But hey - boring it sure ain't! For Michael shows considerable initiative in arrangement, choosing to creatively expand the repertoire of bottleneck by enterprisingly including a number of pieces that one wouldn't normally expect to be played on (or sung to) bottleneck or slide. This inevitably means that not all of the selections are strictly blues - although Michael's steeped in, and naturally takes his cue from, all the right sources (the true "greats" of country blues like Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson and Fred McDowell). Here he turns in expectedly exemplary performances of some classic blues staples (Robert Johnson's Love In Vain and Terraplane Blues, Blind Willie McTell's Statesboro' Blues) in addition to Leadbelly's On A Monday and Kokomo Arnold's Paddlin' Madeline Blues.

But the principal "winners" here, however, may very likely be judged to be the less "obvious" items. These include Black And White Rag, which Michael plays not as a breakneck string-dazzler showpiece but instead takes it more in the manner of John Fahey - and yet the result is absolutely no less virtuosic. A further interesting and revealing choice is Tommy Armstrong's Durham Lockout - and yet, when you think about it, Michael's bluesy setting is only natural since the song's subject matter (ordinary people struggling to survive against the odds) coheres so closely with that of the blues; the keening evocativeness of Trimdon Grange Explosion forms a canny instrumental coda to this song. And in complete contrast, there's an astoundingly visceral quality to the 12-string on the closing track, Mary Ann Cotton, a skipping song about a notorious serial killer that Michael has rather ingeniously turned into a kind of Durham equivalent to the Stagolee/Louis Collins ballad.

But everywhere Michael travels on this latest musical adventure, his interpretations are authentically and tastefully managed, with sensitivity and intelligence both the hallmarks and the order of the day. Michael's intense musicality produces ever-insightful phrasing that provides the ideal match for the evident passion in his plain-speaking vocal work (to his credit, he doesn't "put on the style" with a fake accent, but sings in his natural voice). Michael really is one of today's most inspirational performers ploughing this rootsy furrow, and his latest offering is thoroughly recommended.

David Kidman