Exposé print issues (1993-2011)
Valerie Gracious / Steve Unruh / Phideaux Xavier — 71319 Live at Monforti Manor
(Bandcamp no#, 2021, 2CD / DL)
by Jon Davis, Published 2022-05-06
I only recently became acquainted with Steve Unruh, with the release of Resistor’s most recent album. In addition to that band, he’s got a number of solo releases. Phideaux Xavier, on the other hand, is a musician I’m quite familiar with, counting something like eight albums in my collection. Valerie Gracious appears on several of those Phideaux albums. This two CD set features the three musicians presenting two sets of material, the first drawn from Unruh’s catalog and played both solo and with the others backing. The second set covers Phideaux’s compositions backed by the others. Unruh’s tunes freely mix up his instruments (guitar, violin, flute, and foot-pedal percussion, with kalimba on one track), and much of the time it’s hard to believe he’s managing it all on his own, but between the percussion played with his feet and the use of a looper, he covers it well. Often, the style could be described as proggy folk-rock with some influences from around the world. His vocals are strong and expressive, and the lyrics are generally good. In fact, my only complaint is that when he stops singing and recites his words, he drops into a sing-song rhythm that I find supremely annoying - it’s like a little kid reading Dr Seuss aloud and getting caught up in the simplistic cadences. So I have to skip track 3 in order to retain my sanity. (I believe strongly that spoken poetry should be treated the way actors treat Shakespeare, letting the grammatical structure dictate cadence rather than simple syllabic metrics.) He includes material going back to his 1998 release, Beginning of a New Day, and up to Precipice, which was brand new at the time of the show in 2019. He finishes off with two long tunes, “Two Little Awakenings” and “Luxury Denial” with Phideaux joining on bass and Gracious on vocals. On the second CD, we get ten songs spanning Phideaux’s recorded work, going all the way back to “Inspecting the Spoils” off Friction (1992). Other tracks come from Ghost Story (2004), Great Leap (2006), Doomsday Afternoon (2007), Number Seven (2009), and Infernal (2018). Phideaux himself plays keyboards, guitar, and bass as the need arises, with Unruh on his usual battery of instruments; Gracious sings both backing and lead as well as contributing some keyboards. Phideaux tells an amusing story about how he and Gracious decided during the set break to change out their second song and do “Candybrain” instead. Unruh heard them rehearsing it, and decided to work out a violin part on the spot. The result sounds great, and without the explanation, no one would have ever guessed it was done so spontaneously. All of the selections are worthy, and it’s very interesting to hear Phideaux’s music in this stripped-down acoustic form. 71319 - Live at Monforti Manor is a fascinating document of a very unusual evening, and should appeal to fans of any of the musicians involved, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for any of them.
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