Steve Tibbetts guitars, kalimba, percussion
Marc Anderson congas, percussion, gongs
Jim Anton bass (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9)
Eric Anderson bass (1, 8, 9)
Bob Hughes bass (10, 11)
Mike Olson synthesizer (7)
Marcus Wise tabla (8, 10)
Claudia Schmidt voice (1, 9)
Rhea Valentine voice (1)
Steve Tibbetts guitars, dobro, piano, kalimba
Marc Anderson congas, percussion, steel drum, gongs, handpan
Michelle Kinney cello, drones (9, 10, 11, 16)
Bob Hughes bass (15)
Tim Weinhold vase, bongos (15)
Marcus Wise tabla (3)
Mastered by Greg Reierson
at Rare Form Mastering, Minneapolis
Cover photo: Lucas Foglia
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: July 1, 2022
“The Best Steve Could Do” is how Steve Tibbetts describes Hellbound Train, a sweeping anthology of works drawn from his decades-long trek across internal and external terrains. The Minnesota-based guitarist and composer selected tracks for this double-disc effort in terms of how well their beginnings and endings suggested connections in an emerging (if malleable) whole. Holding it all together is the trust he shares with his musicians, including percussionists Marc Anderson and Tim Weinhold, tabla player Marcus Wise, bassists Jim Anton, Eric Anderson, and Bob Huges, and cellist Michelle Kinney, among others. In sampling his ECM traversal through Northern Song (1982), Safe Journey (1984), Exploded View (1986), Big Map Idea(1989), The Fall Of Us All (1994), A Man About A Horse (2002), Natural Causes (2010), and Life Of (2018), we are privy to an artist whose instruments are as fleshy as his flesh is instrumental.
Disc I begins with light, as such experiences often do: the glow of an ember, the first twinkle at dusk, the glint in a child’s eye. In search of roadside rest, the itinerant Tibbetts coaxes an all-out percussive mantra from the thickets flanking his path. This is the setting of “Full Moon Dogs,” one of four vital organs transplanted from The Fall Of Us All. An electric guitar courses over this landscape with the charge of a meteor shower. As in “Nyemma” (a lunar spotlight on the voice of Claudia Schmidt) and “Roam And Spy,” he makes his choice—and a fire—to settle in for the night. What follows is not a peaceful slumber, though tranquility is never far away, sharing one image after another until a story takes shape.
Five signposts from A Man About A Horse rise like telephone poles against the Milky Way, strung with trajectories of communication to take upon waking. Whether through the clopping rhythms of “Chandoha” or the sputtering lantern light of “Lochana,” a sense of unease builds to the dyad of “Black Temple” and “Burning Temple,” wherein smoke rules the day. In the aftermath of “Glass Everywhere,” hints of violence dissolve into a brief exchange of voices and laughter.
Despite its destructive qualities, fire is a constant companion, fueled at every turn by the gristle of truth. Tibbetts survives by flinging his 12-string bola at the agile game embodied by hands on drums. The sunlight grows stronger in the elastic nostalgia of “Your Cat” (our sole dip into Exploded View), intersecting the ecliptic of “Vision.” The latter encounter foreshadows the standout selections from Safe Journey on Disc II, including the sacred congregation of kalimba, steel drum, and reverberant picking that is “Climbing” and the masterful “Night Again” and “My Last Chance.” With so much scintillation to chew on, it’s a wonder we don’t turn into comets in the process of listening to them. Big Map Idea compels five entries in this sonic diary, including a nod to Jimmy Page (“Black Mountain Side”) and an excerpt from “Mile 234,” an excursion marking time more than distance.
Grander biomes await us in two tracks from Northern Song. Whereas “The Big Wind” is a winged groove, “Aerial View” feels somehow connected to the earth—so much so that their titles could be reversed and still feel accurate. Life Of sends out four of its offspring, reared in the shadows of Natural Causes, of which “Chandogra” is the epitome of renewal. As if first setting out, our feet no longer have callouses, our muscles are strong, and our packs are heavy. We look upon the open road not as a burden but as an invitation. The only answer to our call resounds in the final “Threnody,” a guitar without a need beyond the hymn it holds against the sun as a compass for all who might come after.
An ethereal souvenir from places we will never visit, Hellbound Train struggles against the current of any vocabulary. This is the best I can do to tell its story. A must-have for Tibbetts fans and an ideal place to start for those fortunate to hear any of this music for the first time.