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 concept?
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 that tune.
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.