REVIEW: With “Thunder Smile,” the Spencer Pheil Band Jams Out Country-Jazz Fusion

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I met Spencer Pheil when he opened with his main band, the Stable Shakers, for Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams, at Gypsy Sally’s, last September. The Stable Shakers made for a perfect opening act that night. Larry Campbell is one of Americana’s great multi-instrumentalists, having playing guitar for Bob Dylan and led Levon Helm’s band. The Stable Shakers’ brand of exquisitely performed instrumental country music absolutely suited the audience and mood.

The Spencer Pheil Band finds him still playing instrumental country music, but where the Stable Shakers operate within firmer boundaries, this project is jam country. While Pheil’s skill on Thunder Smile shows his dedication to learning the playing styles of masters such as Chet Atkins, Danny Gatton, and Les Paul, these are not the most profound influence on Pheil. The guiding force on Pheil, the son a full-time musician, might well be Phish.

As with much jam music, especially in the vein of Phish, Thunder Smile incorporates jazz. Pheil is open that he does this, but there is also folk and roots in the mix here. While there’s more of a resemblance in his work with the Stable Shakers, which leans further toward country and less toward jazz, readers familiar with the work of Jim Campilongo will quickly hear that Pheil owes a debt to his work. I noticed it right away in September, and Spencer confirmed that Campilongo is a major influence.

Pheil’s guitar dominates the soundscape of this album. While he has an excellent supporting cast, with strong work from Tommy Hoy on bass, Jim Aguzzi on drums, and Dave Hadley on pedal steel, this is Pheil’s showcase, for his improvisational work. Not so much for the other players. Pheil though, is an immensely gifted guitarist, and the work here is of the first rate.

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