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For his followup to his acclaimed debut, 2015’s Plugged In, Toronto guitarist-composer Galen Weston recruited producer Steve Rodby, former longtime bassist in Pat Metheny’s band, to help him get to the next level. “I think Steve kind of took where I was in this moment in time and said, ‘Let’s make a snapshot of where you are now.’ We didn’t change much. We didn’t change forms, we didn’t change melodies, but what we did was try to get the best rhythmic feel that we possibly could so that we could present the material the best that we could. That was the goal.”
Returning from Plugged In are the core group of fellow Toronto musicians Richard Underhill on alto sax, David Woodhead on electric bass, Matt Horner on piano and Al Cross on drums. Together they complement Weston’s stinging guitar lines throughout The Space Between on a potent program that includes poignant ballads, earthy blues-rockers, intense rock-jazz jams and one fiery Afro-Cuban romp, all showcasing Weston’s inimitable chops on his trusty yellow Fender Stratocaster.
The secret weapon in Weston’s group remains his indelible hookup with fiery saxophonist Underhill. Their blistering unison lines and passionate call-and-response exchanges create a kind of visceral excitement in concert. And it’s that quality that the guitarist was trying to preserve on his sophomore outing. “What I love about Rich is the fact that he is so deeply rooted in rock ’n’ roll, which is rare for saxophonists,” said Weston. “I absolutely love just rocking out, and I’m not so hung up about trying to be jazzy or trying to do that thing. So when we go on tour, we just rock the thing out and have a great time and we’re not necessarily thinking about playing jazz lines all over the place or the need to fill things with complexity. Rich can just let a note scream, and there’s nothing I like to do more than doing just that. So the chemistry is really good between us.”
After two years of touring with his band, Weston’s chops have been honed to a fine edge, as you can hear on tunes like the swaggering opener “Chicago Nights,” the urgent “New Funk Tune,” the slamming, hip-hop flavored “Elements” and the churning Afro-Cuban burner “McQueen,” which is fueled by Cuban percussionist Michel Brindis Medrano’s polyrhythmic undercurrent and also features the guitarist channeling his inner Carlos Santana on top of the percolating groove. Elsewhere on The Space Between, Weston wails authoritatively with a blues-drenched solo on the mellow “Skyline” and absolutely kills on the upbeat “All Starz Funk,” which sounds right out of the Robben Ford-Larry Carlton school of tasty guitar soloing.
On the other end of the dynamic spectrum, the versatile guitarist shows his more lyrical, introspective side on the restful “Lonely Ballad,” the power ballad “May 5th,” which also features some highly expressive alto playing from Underhill, as well as on the tender “Embrace,” which is underscored by Cross’ sensitive brushwork, George Koller’s upright bass lines and Hood’s gentle piano accompaniment. And for a change of pace, he adds affecting wordless vocals on two tunes, the anthemic “Remembering” and the melodic ballad “Tides.” As the guitarist explained, “I’ve done words and vocal things in the past, and I think touring with the Gypsy Kings this summer made me realize that people just love vocals, that it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a clue what the Gypsy Kings are saying. They just connect on an emotional level with the sound of the human voice. So there’s a couple of songs where I really heard that fitting in, and I’m very pleased with how it came out.”
The dynamic two-part “Cycle of Life” suite features Weston alternating between cleanly-picked electric guitar, screaming distortion-laced lines and warmed-toned nylon string acoustic statements. “That tune has a meaningful title because that was right around the time that David Bowie was dying, and my wife had a few important family members that also passed away pretty much within days of each other around that same time. So I wrote this piece, which is just about the volatility of life.”
The album closes on an alluring note with a straightforward reading of the oft-covered Johnny Mandel tune “The Shadow of Your Smile” (also known as “Love Theme From the Sandpiper,” which was introduced in the 1965 Vicente Minnelli film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). “I had just bought a Fender Telecaster and started playing around on it when that song popped on the radio,” he recalled. “I liked it very much and thought I could make it really bluesy and groovy. I actually did it as a video that I posted on YouTube about a year ago and my mother really liked it. I wasn’t planning on putting any covers or jazz remakes on this album but my mother kept asking me about it…’You’re going to put that on there, right?’ And I was like, ‘I guess.’ So yeah, I did that one for my mom.”
With The Space Between, Weston is clearly back on track after a few years of putting his playing career on the shelf. As he explained, “Plugged In was a kind of return to music for me after being in the business sector for quite a while. I was off making money in the financial world, but when I decided to pick up my guitar again I really dedicated myself to woodshedding for a couple of years while also building a recording studio (his state-of-the-art Rose Room in Toronto). Then after that album was done I had to go out and play and learn how to do all of that again. So two years or so of playing gigs, in some cases taking me out of my comfort zone, like playing in front of 5,000 people opening up for the Gypsy Kings, I learned a lot in terms of psychology, time, rhythm, feel…all those things. And I really wanted to capture that live feeling on this album.”
You can feel that live energy leap off of each track on The Space Between, Weston’s stellar followup to Plugged In.
— Bill Milkowski
Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to Down Beat and is also the author of “JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius” (Backbeat Books)