Bill Frisell has carved out a career that dodges clearly defined categories while attracting a loyal audience simply by doing projects that appeal to him. The guitarist’s inimitable quaver and personal autobiography have probably never been so intertwined as on Guitar in the Space Age!, which covers songs from the post-war era of the 1950s through to the nascent edge of mid-’60s counter-culture. This was guitar music that included the twang of post-Western swing, the reverb of garage rock and the chime of pop-rock, all pervaded with a subtle whiff of the blues. If that sounds like a reasonable facsimile of the way Frisell plays, it is no coincidence — this was the formative music that made him want to pick up a guitar when he was a boy.
The quartet includes three of the four musicians Frisell used on his John Lennon covers album in 2011 — pedal steel and acoustic guitarist Greg Leisz, drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr. This time out, Leisz deserves costar billing. At 65 he’s two years older than Frisell, and similarly grew up playing Fender guitars, the iconic instrument of the Space Age. The loving support he provides, usually on pedal steel is a blend of empathy and telepathy, and is akin to having two Frisell savants on every tune.
The 14-song collection opens and closes with classics by the Ventures, “Pipeline” and “Telstar.” It includes the song that first charmed Frisell during his Denver boyhood, the Astronauts’ “Baja,” and the first single he ever bought, the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.” The post-Beatles are represented by the Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn” and the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting.” The blues is checked off with a cover of Junior Wells’s “Messin’ With the Kid,” and there are classic tracks from Duane Eddy (“Rebel Rouser”) and Link Wray (“Rumble”). As is his wont, Frisell takes his time even on the typically breakneck stuff, like the Ventures songs and Merle Travis’s “Cannonball Rag.” The best stuff, surprisingly, comes from his two covers of Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West, “Bryant’s Boogie” and “Reflections from the Moon,” with Frisell in the Bryant role and Leisz spooling out pedal licks that have Speedy West grooving in his grave. Frisell is so prolific that tough choices are necessary among all but completists, but if you have an affinity for this era, or luxuriate in Frisell’s trademark sound, know that Leisz is doubling down and step right up.