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Pete Madsen - Carnival of Rags
East Side SlimBy East Side Slim

Pete Madsen :: Carnival of Rags
Pete Madsen :: Carnival of Rags
Artist released, 2007

Pete Madsen is a San Francisco Bay-based musician, writer and teacher. Pete's newest CD consists of him playing acoustic and National slide (dobro) guitars, with a focus on early period acoustic blues (many times referred to as pre-War blues) and ragtime-based numbers. There are touches of other styles thrown in, too, and it all makes for a very interesting and enjoyable listen. Pete's influences include such talented (and disparate) musicians as Blind Blake, John Fahey, Big Bill Broonzy, Leo Kottke, Scott Joplin and Merle Travis.

As stated earlier, Pete is a musician, writer and teacher. As a musician, he has released 3 acoustic guitar CDs under his name and 1 electric guitar CD (electric guitar-oriented instrumental music, including the styles of: Rockabilly, Surf, Blues, and Funk) under the name of Buzzy Frets. He also plays live gigs. As a writer he has written 3 instructional books for guitar players, and has authored regular articles for Acoustic Guitar magazine. In addition to writing instructional materials, he also teaches guitar lessons first-hand.

The Songs: (songs by Pete Madsen unless otherwise noted)

1. Carnival of Rags
--The title to track the CD, this cut shows you very quickly what is in store for you during the course of this CD. Lot's of fancy picking, much of it incredibly intricate, with tasty slide work and nice melodies. This tune has an Eastern feels to it, sort of a raga-ish feel, rather than rag.

2. Maple Leaf Rag – (Scott Joplin)
--This is a faithful rendition of Joplin's famous ragtime tune. Pete makes it sound as if 2 people were playing guitar here, but it's only Pete.

3. Last Steam Engine – (John Fahey)
--This is a Piedmont-style folk blues tune. Much of what distinguishes the Piedmont style is it's foundations on ragtime music, meaning it is quite syncopated. When I listen to this I can just about hear John Cephas running with a version of the song. That is meant as a compliment to Mr. Madsen, as John Cephas was a masterful Piedmont-style guitarist.

4. Sunflower River Blues – (John Fahey)
--This tune provides a nice juxtaposition of tempos after the very fast Last Steam Engine. Sunflower River Blues is a slower, meditative song, with beautiful melody and performance.

5. Pass the Jug – (Frank Melrose)
--We have a nice country blues here with a back porch feel, although I'm not sure how many back porch players have Pete's guitar skills. It often sounds as if 2 people are playing guitar, but once again it is only Pete.

6. Hope Springs Eternal
--A Pete Madsen original with a beautiful gospel feel, this tune starts at a slow tempo, but abruptly shifts to a very quick tempo finger-twisting workout. The song actually does convey a feeling of hope and faith; very nicely done.

7. Deep River Blues – (Alton Delmore)
--This is the first of only 2 cuts on the CD featuring Pete singing in addition to playing. His voice is serviceable to the song, but he won't ever be confused with Pavarotti. Musically, this is an interesting tune to listen to, with a bit of a carnival feel to it and very complicated finger picking.

8. An Operatic Rag – (Mario Frosini)
--A bit of a change of pace, as Pete has taken what is essential a classical (operatic) piece and turned it into a rag. Funny thing is…it works! It also allows Pete to show off some of those fancy highfalutin licks that would be a bit out of place in more traditionally rooted folk blues tunes.

9. Shuffle Rag – (Big Bill Broonzy)
--The title says it all here, as it is nicely descriptive of the cut. This old Big Bill Broonzy song is a combination of a shuffle and a rag. Think along the lines of a merger of Bluebird-era Chicago blues with Piedmont-style picking. It sounds very nice.

10. In the Night, In the Dark
--This is another Madsen original. It's a slower-paced track based around double-note picking. It has a bit of a melancholy feel, as you might expect based on the song title. It's a pretty tune, though.

11. Whippersnapper
--Another Madsen original. This is a wild one – there's no other way to describe it. It's very percussive, has a fast tempo and loads of incredibly complicated finger picking. I swear to God that Pete must have 6 fingers on each hand, or maybe 4 hands.

12. Blue Smoke – (Merle Travis)
--This is another exercise in incredibly intricate playing. The only downside of that is that it can become a bit tedious to non-players, as it can come off as self-indulgent. Sometimes less really is more. All that said Pete's performance here is quite stunning on this bluesy country-tinged acoustic burner.

13. Police Dog Blues – (Arthur Blake, aka Blind Blake)
--We have another vocal performance here from Mr. Madsen. This is a very old song from the Blind Blake songbook. Blind Blake has been a highly influential figure for many acoustic players through the years, and it appears that Pete is one of those players. Fans of pre-WWII acoustic blues should enjoy this cut very much, as it's probably the most traditionally-minded song on the CD.

14. The Entertainer – (Scott Joplin)
--There's no doubt that this is a guitar rag, as Madsen is tackling one of the standards from the ragtime cannon in The Entertainer. Personally, I prefer rags played on guitar rather than on piano, and Pete's take here does nothing to change my mind. He doesn't play the tune completely straight here, either, as he mixes some classical music passages into the tune.

15. Le Petit Nicolas
--As the Monty Python boys used to say…"and now for something completely different". The sounds on this tune bring to my mind the CD title, Carnival of Rags, as it possesses a definite eccentric, carnival-like feel. I'm not sure who "Little Nicolas" is, but the melody makes me think of a 2 or 3 year old boy rambling through new adventures with nothing but the joy of new discoveries on his mind.

16. Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground – (Blind Willie Johnson)
--The original version of this song from Blind Willie Johnson, especially the vocal, was downright frightening. Instead of singing the lyric, Pete chose to vocalize via humming, although this is used only in small snippets at any one time and is used to echo (or 2nd) his slide lines.

17. Ashby Strut
--This jazzy little number is a fine choice to end the CD. It is quick paced and very rhythmic, and is one of those tunes that simply puts a smile on your face. I do enjoy a nice strut.

The Verdict: Pete Madsen, who is likely unknown to many readers, as he was to me prior to reviewing his CD, has put together a very nice piece of work with his album Carnival of Rags. While the songs are rooted in blues and ragtime styles, I think fans of most any type of acoustic guitar-based music will enjoy this CD. The styles of songs are greatly varied, and Pete is a virtuoso player. Only 2 of the 17 songs possess vocals, the rest being instrumentals, and all of them feature only Mr. Madsen, although it sounds as if 2 or more guitarists are playing simultaneously on many tracks – but it's only Pete playing ONE guitar; he really is that fine a musician. The only negative I can really mention is that at 17 tracks the CD becomes a bit long with single-session listening. Removal of a couple of the cover tunes in order to focus more on his own fine compositions might not have been a bad idea. All-in-all a minor quibble, because Carnival of Rags is definitely not raggedy; it's very good, indeed. Let's rate this bad boy - STLBluesometer rating of 4.00 for Pete Madsen's Carnival of Rags.

www.buzzyfrets.com | www.myspace.com/petemadsen

Lee Howland - aka "East Side Slim"
The STLBluesometer

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