In the jam-packed Ambassador Motor Inn in Edmonton, the Amos Garrett Band has just finished a blistering up-tempo version of the Elvis Presley classic Mystery Train. The audience response is just what Garrett wants, “a foaming, frothing, malty frenzy.” After two decades of standing in the wings and supplying others with some of the finest guitar work in pop music, Garrett is finally at centre stage. Possessed of a manner that suggests both scholarly amusement and street-smart irony, the tall, lanky guitarist chuckles a few words into the microphone: “For you folks who may have been following us over the years: no more Lazy Bones— we’ve got our Rock and Roll Shoes on—” As Garrett’s guitar rips out the opening chords, the audience froths and foams again.
Offstage, Garrett adds a further caveat: “And no more sideman anymore. That’s it—unless Charlie Christian or Leadbelly comes back from the grave and asks me to join the band.” Indeed, Garrett might be the first they would call. His reputation is that of an accompanist extraordinaire, scattering his fluid guitar solos from Toronto to Tokyo with musicians as diverse as Anne Murray, Emmylou Harris and Todd Rundgren. But triumphs such as the limpid, lyrical guitar break in Maria Muldaur’s Midnight at the Oasis have overshadowed the fact that Garrett sings in a gutsy baritone, writes some of his own songs, and refurbishes the forgotten gems of 20th-century pop music. That well-kept secret was being openly revealed this month as his band toured the blues-and-beer clubs of Western Canada. Next month his second solo album, Amosbehavin', will be released by Edmonton’s Stony Plain Records.
The album is the perfect introduction to the new rock ’n’ rolling Garrett for his old fans and to the perennial laidback Garrett for novitiates. The music ranges from droll nostalgia such as Hoagy Carmichael’s New Orleans and the 1933 Ramon Novarro vehicle Love Songs of the Nile to the fast funk of Cardiac Arrest, penned by Garrett’s Wunderkind guitarist, Colin Linden of Toronto. While Garrett’s voice has relaxed and matured since his first solo album, Go Cat Go, in 1980, the guitar solos— biting sharp on the rhythm and blues numbers, dreamlike on the ballads— still dominate his sound.
That guitar style is the envy of other musicians. “He’s a brilliant musician with a style so totally unique you can’t
miss it,” says Sylvia Tyson. “The most common comment I hear from other guitar players about Amos is, ‘How did he do that?’ ” After hearing the tour de force solo in Midnight at the Oasis, Stevie Wonder took the trouble to phone Garrett in an obscure Minnesota recording studio to tell him that his solo was the “second-best” instrumental break in all of rock ’n’ roll, next to the trumpet solo in Barbara George’s I
Know. (“When I heard who it was,” says Garrett, “I just sat there swallowing my tongue.”) And there is the oftrepeated but perhaps apocryphal anecdote of Robbie Robertson, the lead guitarist for The Band, transferring a Garrett solo to a tape loop and listening to nothing else for days. “I heard that too,” concurs Garrett. “My whole career is one big anecdote.”
Born in Detroit 40 years ago, Garrett was raised in Toronto and Montreal. “Down at the Esquire Show Bar in Montreal, 15 years old, nursing a Molson’s Ex at the bar and listening to John Lee Hooker, Albert King, Ben E. King, Junior Walker—that’s where I went to school,” he recalls. His career started in 1962, when he dropped out of his third year at the University of Toronto to tour with Vaughn Meader’s First Family satirical troupe. The next year, he returned to Toronto, forming the Dirty Shames jug band. In 1968 he moved on to Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s seminal country-rock band, The Great Speckled Bird.
Consequent work in the early 1970s with Geoff and Maria Muldaur and Paul Butterfield’s Better Days blues band established his personal style. He created his weeping guitar sound by bending the strings to sustain a vibrato, an extrapolation of blues giant B.B. King’s technique of bending single strings. Beyond his technical facility, it was the personality that Garrett injected into his playing that distinguished his work. “I knew him as an amazing guitar player who would show up and sit in from time to time, blow everybody away and then disappear,” says Bruce Cockburn about his acquaintance with Garrett in Ottawa 15 years ago. “He has great stage presence. He would sit in, and all of a sudden this dry, droll sense of humor would roll out. That’s always present, even in his playing.”
The humor is absolutely up front in the Amos Garrett Band as it builds a grassroots following. The songs Garrett performs today often feature a talking coda. On Some Cats Know Garrett flirts with seriousness when he explains: “You know, somebody could make a lot of money starting a school to teach this stuff, ’stead of standing around a street corner trying to figure out a new career. But I think it would be all in vain, you know. Because, it just seems, either a cat knows or he don’t.” The enthusiastic audiences on the tour evidently agree that Garrett is one of the cats who does know. -BARRIE HALE
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