Often underrated and dismissed as a novelty instrument, the lap steel actually has a rich heritage of incredible players in a wide variety of genres. Don Helms, Leon McAuliffe and Speedy West set the standard for Western Swing and country; Aubrey Ghent and Calvin Cooke made the instrument sing like Mahalia Jackson, and David Lindley and Ben Harper brought the instrument to the forefront of popular music. On this, his debut release as a leader, respected lap steel player Raphael McGregor seeks to blend creativity and imagination with respect for tradition. The record is all original material and reveals a unique set of tastes and influences; from the Django Reinhardt-influenced ballad “Orangerie” to the Duane Allman-inspired jam “Staircase.” Interspersed with the full band compositions are solo improvisations performed by Raphael on the lap steel and loop pedal. These solo performances are a fixture of the quintet’s live shows and always garner an
Whereas many steel guitar albums tend to highlight the steel to the point of exhaustion and leave little room for any other player to shine, Fretless is full of brilliant performances by all the band members. “TVM” features superb solo work by guitarist Nick Russo and drummer Vinnie Sperazza, “Southern Border” gives reed player Oran Etkin a chance to shine in the 9/8 solo section, and veteran bassist Jason Sypher contributes a wonderful exchange with the drums on “Staircase.” All of the members of the quintet have jazz backgrounds, which makes for an exuberant and unpredictable live show. The unique abilities of this band and the strong steel guitar work and singular compositional voice of its leader make Fretless a dynamic and forward-looking album that breaks new boundaries for the lap steel while remaining tied to its long and magnificent tradition.