THE TWO GUITAR DUDES IN THE FREEWHEELING
improv ensemble known as Lackawanna are
pretty good at trusting the process—believing
that things will somehow work out, even if
they’re not sure exactly how or why. Take former
GP editor Adam Levy. When he left the
mag at the turn of the century, he only knew
he wanted to play music in New York, not that
he would meet a then-unknown songstress
named Norah Jones and go on to tour the world
and elsewhere with her. His co-guitarist in Lackawanna,
Jason Crigler, collapsed onstage in 2004
from a brain hemorrhage, and doctors said he
might not survive it. Even if he did, he probably
wouldn’t walk, talk, or play guitar ever again.
Although it would take “several miracles,”
Crigler believed that he could prove them
wrong, and he did just that. Finally reunited in
2007, Levy and Crigler keep the faith on Lackawanna’s
latest, Whenever the Blues Becomes My
Only Song, a six-song live record, tracked over
two nights at New York’s Living Room.How did this band come together and what was the
Levy: It started seven or eight years ago in
New York. Jason and I both found ourselves
doing gigs with singer-songwriters and we kept
running into each other. I wanted to have an
opportunity to play with him, so we booked a
month of gigs and every week we would hire a
different rhythm section. We were originally a
cover band—like an Americana Booker T. We
would do Gillian Welch songs, some alt-Americana,
some soul tunes. The energy was
definitely there and we thought we should do
a record sometime, but a couple of things happened
that got in the way. My gig with Norah
Jones quickly went from playing to eight people
to being on the Grammy’s, so I was gone a
lot. Then I found out around 2005 that Jason
had had this brain injury. We were on hold then
because his life was on hold. When Jason was
ready, we decided to make a record, and we realized
that we wanted to include our own music.
Crigler: I had specific ideas about what an
instrumental guitar-based band should be. I
didn’t want it to adhere to the standard “play
the head, everybody solo, play the head again”
format. I wanted it to be more organic, with
things interweaving and songs morphing into
one another. I wanted to have two people solo
at the same time, but have it work.
Take a song like “Fast Train.” How set was that
arrangement when you gigged it?
Levy: Not set at all. We didn’t discuss anything
and we had no rehearsal. We talked about
rehearsing, but one thing led to another and
then it was the night of the gig. We sent mp3s
back and forth but there was no plan.
Crigler: What I wanted in my mind was
this “guitar soup.” I wanted a gumbo with all
these flavors popping around and things hitting
you at weird times. When it collides and
comes together and it’s beautiful, that’s great.
There’s a really interesting interlocking guitar
part at 2:15 in that song. Was that planned?
Levy: Totally improvised. All the coolest
stuff in Lackawanna is the stuff that happens
when we’re not sure what’s happening. Somebody
will take a solo, and you don’t know if
they’re done, so you’re looking at each other
and figuring out what you’re going to do next.
When I listen to this record, those are the things
that excite me. They’re not my stock licks,
they’re not things I’ve done on other records.
They just sort of come out and I don’t know
where they come from.
Crigler: There are a bunch of moments on
the record like that. There’s another one in
“Coco Llama,” at 5:30, that might be my
favorite moment of the project. It’s just luck,
honestly. We’re both the sort of musicians you
don’t really have to explain or talk to that much.
We try to do enough of the right things so you
get all those little goodies. We surprise each
other and every now and then we land on something
beautiful. That’s one of them.
What gear did you use on this recording?
Crigler: I played my mongrel Telecaster into
an old Fender Princeton. It’s a Squier body with
a Strat neck and Kinman pickups. It’s also got a
Hipshot bending system so I can bend the B and
G strings like a pedal-steel. I used a Fulltone Full
Drive distortion and on Adam’s tune “Pretty Little
Thing” I used a Z.vex Tremorama. The effect
that sounds like a record slowing down is an
Alesis AirFX. I think DJs use them but I like
effects that aren’t necessarily guitar effects.
Levy: I played my 1979 ES-335 into a blackface
Fender Princeton Reverb. I had a Carl
Martin Red Repeat delay, a Boss OD-3 Overdrive,
and an Analogman-modded Boss DS-1
but I didn’t use it much.
There are some jagged, angular guitar parts in
“Bahmbo” and lots of lead guitar interplay. Talk about
Levy: I love how a chunk of the improv in
“Bahmbo” is more of a sparring match than a
“you solo, then me, then you, then me” thing.
Why must one player be the featured soloist
when it’s throwdown time? When it works,
having two soloists playing off each other can
be thrilling. Well, at least it was thrilling for me.
Crigler: “Bahmbo” is one of my songs, and
both of my songs on this record have these
counterpoint lines. I think the angular thing
comes from us extrapolating the counterpoint
lines and taking them further. There are a lot
of things I’m really proud of on this record, but
especially when Adam and I are both soloing
at the same time. When it’s right, it’s an incredibly
uplifting feeling. There’s a point in
“Bahmbo” where the guitars are talking or
maybe screaming at each other and the way
they coalesce is really incredible to me.
What do you each feel the other guy is bringing
to this gig?
Crigler: I think Adam provides two things
for me. One is this huge comfort zone—he’s
like a rock and that gives me confidence to take
chances because I know he’s there to back me
up. The other is his huge beautiful tone. That
always inspires me.
Levy: Put it this way: I hardly ever play slide
anymore, but I do on this record. The fact that I
even brought a slide to the gig is a testament to
Jason. He has this ability to give you the confidence
to not worry about intonation or if the slide
stuff is in tune with the fretted stuff. You get this
feeling that if you leap, it’ll just happen.