Heavy Mental Guitar Ecstasy: 5 Essential Albums from the 18th Icon of Echoes
By John Diliberto 04/20/2021
Few musicians redefined their instrument the way Michael Hedges did. He rewrote the book on acoustic guitar. From his debut album, Breakfast in the Field in 1981, to his untimely passing in 1997, Hedges always had musicians standing slack-jawed watching him play. The smart ones didn’t hang around for autographs. They ran back to the woodshed, trying to assimilate an approach that radicalized the guitar the way Einstein radicalized physics. He was voted the 18th of 30 Icons of Echoes. Here are five essential albums from his eight proper solo recordings on Windham Hill Records.
1- Aerial Boundaries
His second solo album, Aerial Boundaries has classic Hedges tracks like “Rickover’s Dream.” This is also a more spacious recording than his debut as Hedges began messing with the studio as an instrument and using spatial placement and artful reverbs. You can hear it on the opening title track and he goes into the extreme on “Spare Change” with loops and backwards tapes. This album also features “Bensusan,” named for guitarist Pierre Bensusan. He has a sensitive cover of Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush” with bassist Michael Manring bending his fretless bass into the melody line.
I know purists might place this later on the list, but I always thought it was Hedges‘ most perfectly-conceived album. In addition to his wonderful guitar playing on tunes like “Ignition,” it also has some beautiful arrangements, including Hedges playing flute and harmonica, and Michael Manring on electric bass. It features fret-stompers like “Ignition” and beautifully-arranged pieces like the ethereal title track, which also features Hedges playing flute, his first instrument. It highlights him as a composer as much as a guitarist.
3- Breakfast in the Fields
This is the kind of debut that makes a musician a favorite for life. Breakfast in the Fields was a shot across the bow of acoustic guitar albums with songs like “The Happy Couple,” and the signal piece, “Silent Anticipations.” Already a formidable guitarist when he was playing it straight, “Silent Anticipations” introduced Michael’s two-handed tapping techniques. Using both left and right hand, he tapped out melodies and rhythms right on the fretboard, giving him a pianistic ability to create counterpoint,bass-lines and a percussionist’s groove.
This is a middle-period Hedges album and a conceptual work. It’s a musical biography, inspired by the symbology of the famed mythologist, Joseph Campbell. The music is wide-ranging. “The Jade Stalk” taps his classical roots with a clarinet solo over a synth ostinato. This is Michael as composer, and he barely plays on this track. It also features a Hedges signature song, “Ritual Dance,” his “Vaseline Machine Gun.”
5- Live on the Double Planet
This album gives an inkling of the power Michael Hedges brought to his live performances. It features definitive performances of many of his best-known tunes, as well as covers of songs by Hendrix and The Beatles. It also was his first recording, on one of his own albums, of the harp guitar. He’d used it in some soundtracks and other one-off projects, but this was the first time it appeared on a Hedges album, on the song “Because It’s There (BIT).” His harp guitar had an additional five bass strings, as if he wasn’t dangerous enough on six. There are a lot of vocals on this, which, let’s say was not Michael’s strong suit.
Bonus Pick: I usually don’t put anthologies in these lists, but if I wanted to introduce somebody to the Hedges oeuvre, I’d probably go with Beyond Boundaries. And not because I wrote the liner notes. It’s all instrumental and features his best songs from across his first four studio albums, as well as some live tracks recorded on Echoes. And I’m not recommending it for that reason either. Those tracks have been deleted from the digital releases anyway.
See the complete list of 30 Icons for 30 Years of Echoes.
Hear our interview with Michael Hedges on April 21, 2021 and in the Echoes Podcast on April 22.