Arguably Vermont’s most prolific album producer with 20 CDs to date, Spencer Lewis’ 2019 release, “Riffs on a Broad Reach,” will have longtime fans encouraged by his musical twists and turns. New listeners will find an established artist working toward new sonic creations in electric music, while also staying solidly within the acoustic vein he has long followed.
Lewis, from Bethel, has been releasing albums that feature his lyrical folk violin improvisations and smooth acoustic guitar chords and arpeggios. This combination has proven a winning path to proven album sales. On occasion, he records albums with songs he has written, but his primary musical vehicle is his instrumentals.
“Riffs” is somewhat of a departure for Lewis. The opening track, “High Over Bethel,” has Lewis on electric guitar with drums and bass. We discover a very good electric guitarist in Lewis. The track itself sounds like the introduction to a folk-rock song, or the instrumental lead in the middle of a song. But Lewis is not singing here and the track winds up being a statement on how a primarily acoustic musician can move his music beyond the boundaries that previously encompassed his musical ideas.
The album’s title, says Lewis, comes from sailing terminology. “In sailing terms, a broad reach is achieved when the wind is nearly full in the sails, and this album encapsulates that feeling.”
Lewis incorporates both a hi- and lo-fi approach to this album “with studio takes blended with spontaneous performances captured on a hand-held recorder.” Whatever the technology used to record this 13-track CD, the sound is clean and the playing inspired.
“Riffs,” Lewis explains, began life with three songs originally sent to “a western ski area who licensed Lewis’ music for promotional use.” They sat in a digital file cabinet almost forgotten until he “decided to revisit the tracks and, through the laws of attraction, other songs began to emerge to reveal a full artistic statement.”
The tracks move from electric guitar and violin with drums, bass and organ, to more sparse tracks with just acoustic guitar and violin. Several tracks are short, under three minutes in length, seemingly written as brief musical statements.
Lewis supposes that some longtime fans will think he’s “gone crazy,” but he assures them on his website that he’s been composing and recording folk-rock since the 1998 release of “The Silence Between the Words.”
While he’s been primarily a solo artist, Lewis has made many friends in the musical community. On “Riffs” we hear bass lines from Eric Graham and Rudy Dauth, and Brett Hoffman and Jeff Berlin share the drumming. Dauth also contributes mandolin and lead acoustic guitar. Bryn Bliska, a keyboardist from Brooklyn, plays synth and interactive organ parts.
Most musicians with a sizeable following like Lewis who are in their 60s tend to stay with the musical style that is familiar to them and their fans. Lewis is having none of this approach. He has found a new sound in the electric guitar and musicians who understand his approach to playing and recording. I doubt that “Riffs” is a one-off album. His next project just might be full-on electric guitar. How about some lyrics, as well, Spencer?