I’ve never played guitar, so may not be the best person to judge, and I’m generally averse to wild comparatives and superlatives in music reviews. Watching Arbouretum last night, though – it was somewhere in the last quarter of “Song Of The Nile”, to be specific – I started to think that, just maybe, Dave Heumann might be one of the best guitarists I’ve seen play in years.
We’ve been here before, of course: this is a link to my piece on Arbouretum’s wonderful recent album, “The Gathering”, which in turn links to some other stuff I’ve written on them, including a review of their 2009 Club Uncut show. For this return visit, the second guitarist has been replaced by a keyboardist, which deprives us of the fearsome Television-style face-offs, and consequently fixes the spotlight with even greater intensity on Heumann.
Evidently, he can handle the attention; he’s the solo constant member of this gravitational Baltimore band, after all. Heumann’s solos tend to be intricate and precise freakouts, which operate within narrow margins until – as at that point in “Song Of The Nile” – he leans back and begins to shred. It’s an unflappable-looking virtuosity which drives solos like the straight-up astonishing one in “Waxing Crescents”. For an encore of “Pale Rider Blues”, he tones down the effects a little and comes on like a discreet successor to Jimmy Page. By this point, you suspect he could play just about anything, with the minimum of fuss.
Heumann’s bandmates maintain a rigorous, locked-on drone backup for his excursions; in a set built mostly around “Gathering Songs” (“The White Bird”, “When Delivery Comes”, the Jimmy Webb cover, “The Highwayman”), they create a thicker, heavier sound than last time round (the tribal thud of “Waxing Crescents” climaxes, happily, with a drum solo).
But to imply that Arbouretum’s songs exist merely as launchpads from which Heumann can embark on one expansive solo after another would be misleading. These are sturdy, thoughtful and resonant songs, rooted in English folk, their elaborate melodic complexities riding mystically over the stoner heft of the rhythm section. It reads like an awkward mix, but as these songs roll out with a heroically dogged, almost motorik momentum, it works superbly.
Thanks to Arbouretum for playing, anyhow, and thanks too to Alexander Tucker for his support set: a more restrained and song-based affair (in keeping with his new “Dorwytch” album) than this last Club Uncut showing.