Just Say the Word
Pennsylvanians are well acquainted with guitarist Gabe Stillman’s energetic, acrobatic, showman-like performances. He leaves no doubt that he can wield an axe gracefully, swaggeringly, and demonstratively depending on the tune. Nonetheless, this debut, Just Say the Word, will surprise even his most ardent fans due to his accomplished songwriting and a versatility of vocal performances that don’t often come to the fore in his guitar shredding live act. The national audience has no preconceived notions but will be impressed with the totality of the youthful Stillman’s toolkit – well-crafted and relatable tunes, diverse arrangements, and superior vocals. The guitar playing goes without saying. Stillman, a 2015 graduate of The Berklee School of Music, is the winner of the Gibson Guitar Award at the 2019 IBC.
Besides, a renowned artist such as Anson Funderburgh, who produced the album, would not tarnish his reputation by lending his name to a fledgling upstart. He recognizes talent and says this in the inside jacket – “Great musicians are special; they have something different that sets them apart from the others. They are born with it; it just comes easy. Gabe Stillman is one of them.”
Funderburgh formed an elite backing band for the album recorded in Austin, TX. Aboard are Colin Beatty (bass), Roy Hangen (drums) (Bruce Katz Band), Taylor Streiff (all keyboards) (Nick Moss Band), and the Texas Horns – Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff (tenor sax), John Mills (baritone sax), Al Gomez (trumpet). Funderburgh guests on guitar along with Sue Foley on “No Matter What You Wear” and Greg Izor adds chromatic harmonica to the instrumental “Susquehanna 66.” Background vocalists Alice Spencer, Tommy Taylor, and Kazanoff add to three tracks. There are a generous fifteen tracks, eleven penned by Stillman, two co-writes with Mick Johns and a cover of Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You” and Bill Withers’ “Friend of Mine.” Stillman and band cruise through an array of blues, soul, and R&B styles.
The opener “Give Me Some Time” features Elmore James-like slide while The Texas Horns and Streif’s B3 propel “Let It Go.” Given the Texas feel and the blues legacy of Austin, “No Time for Me” and the standout, B3-fueled “No Peace For a Soldier” may evoke echoes of Double Trouble while “Alabama Flowers” has an intriguing mix of mild strains of early Tony Joe White and hints of Tex-Mex. The bouncy title track with a bari solo from Mills and the slow burner “Heartbreak Makes a Sound” with a Kazanoff tenor spot, transport the listener back to the ‘60s sound of Stax. Stillman proves he can play in restrained style with robust tone. The Jimmy Reed-like shuffle “No Matter What You Wear” revisits the glory days of Antone’s, featuring crisp solos from three guitarists – the leader, Funderburgh, and Sue Foley. That’s only the first half.
The rollicking instrumental “Susquehanna 66” has Stillman, Strief (on B3) and guest Izor firing on all cylinders, with impressive harmonics created among the three as Stillman plays in jazzy mode. “Ain’t Gonna Change” has a heavy bottom with Hubert Sumlin/Howlin’ Wolf-like riffs as Streif’s piano plays the part of Henry Gray. “Out of Time” is a potent horn slathered tune, the kind borne in these Texas environs over the past 40-50 years. Stillman reveals his feel for R&B in the two covers, aided by Streif’s keyboards in “I’ll Take Care of You” and the combination of horns and backing vocals in “Friend of Mine.”
Though uncredited it sounds as if Stillman is playing a lap steel in the roots song “Don’t Go Cold,” another gem while the closer, the half spoken/half sung “See BT Blues” doesn’t quite jell with the rest of the material. That aside, this is a brilliant, auspicious debut from one who has the complete package. Gabe Stillman’s future is very bright.
- Jim Hynes
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