American Gypsy introduces itself with about 15 seconds of rumbling instrumental noise, the equivalent of an outsider orchestra tuning, before the opening blues figure of "Oh Berta, Berta" falls down from Tony Furtado's guitar. In those early moments, a new direction is named for Furtado, a bluegrass virtuoso and genre-bending master whose 1997 release, Roll My Blues Away, introduced his perfection of the slide guitar and move away from traditional roots-style composition.
Slide guitar and banjo whiz Tony Furtado's fourth album in four years (for his fourth label) is a perfect encapsulation of how his sound has grown. Encompassing folk, blues, funk, and jazz, the disc kicks off with a seven-minute jam on "False Hearted Lover" featuring Paul McCandless on reeds (a recent addition to the American Gypsies). The ex-Oregon member adds unique East Indian snake-charmer scales as the group churns up a frothy backing. It, like most of these live performances of tunes taken predominantly from Furtado's past two releases, leaves the studio versions in the dust. Furtado's dusky vocals resonate with a successful combination of pathos and intensity, neither detracting from, nor overwhelming the crack playing at this album's heart.
It always seems to create a certain amount of confusion when a multi-talented artist like Tony Furtado grows in a new direction. Once upon a time, he recorded instrumental banjo music for labels like Rounder, adventurous acoustic music for fans of David Grisman, Tony Rice, and Béla Fleck. A few years later, however, finds Furtado – artistically speaking – all over the map. Now, he also plays guitar (acoustic and electric), sings, writes, and performs in multiple styles. On 2005's Bare Bones, Furtado takes a step back from the eclectic hodgepodge of These Chains for a low-key concert album. True to the title, he backs his own vocals with acoustic and electric guitar and banjo over 11 tracks, producing a quiet and intimate album that reminds one a bit of Leo Kottke's later material.
Just because nothing on banjo/guitar master Tony Furtado's 14th album couldn't have been included on his last half dozen doesn't make it any less enjoyable or edgy. Deep Water is another predominantly low-key yet never easygoing set of ballads and midtempo folk-rockers, with an emphasis on folk. The tracks are a little shorter and tighter this time, yet nonetheless sizzle like a dry fuse threatening to detonate its bomb. Most never do – however, the anticipation creates tension that fuels this darkly tuneful music. Vocals aren't Furtado's strong suit, yet he sounds loose and comfortable, applying his dusky, five-o'clock-shadow voice to songs that make the most of his less-is-more singing and deceptively intricate guitar and banjo work.