WOODSTOCK, N.Y., October 24, 2007 — Arlen Roth’s name is uttered in the hushed, reverent tones reserved for the true greats. Vintage Guitar magazine cited him as one of the “Top 100 Influential Guitarists of the Century.” But outside this clued-in sector, Roth has remained under the radar throughout the majority of his 35-year career. The new album, Toolin’ Around Woodstock — Featuring Levon Helm on Roth’s own Aquinnah label, due out February 5, 2008, could change things. Unlike its 1993 all-star super session antecedent Toolin’ Around, which featured a who’s who of fellow guitar greats, the forthcoming album focuses on a close-knit unit anchored by the great drummer and vocalist well known for his work in The Band, whose name is fittingly referenced in the album title.
Roth and Helm are joined here by bassist Paul Ossola — a Roth regular — along with Matt Rae on rhythm guitar and Brian Mitchell on keyboards. Slide wizard Sonny Landreth and former Commander Cody mainstay Bill Kirchen guest on two tracks apiece. And the album has a generational aspect with Arlen’s daughter Lexie and Levon’s daughter Amy adding their voices to several tracks. The album was produced by Roth and long time friend Jon Gershen.
The crew is capable of tearing through any tune that’s set before them, which is precisely what they do on the album’s 14 tracks, drawn from the songbooks of Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Buck Owens and Carl Perkins, along with the soul classic “Just One Look,” the standard “Unchained Melody,” a pair of Roth originals and the one-of-a-kind instrumental “Sleepwalk.” The crew is capable of tearing through any tune that’s set before them, which is precisely what they do on the album’s 14 tracks, drawn from the songbooks of Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Buck Owens and Carl Perkins, along with the soul classic “Just One Look,” the standard “Unchained Melody,” a pair of Roth originals and the one-of-a-kind instrumental “Sleepwalk.” Also included will be a bonus DVD featuring behind the scenes footage of the recording sessions.
“Working with Levon reminded me of why I started playing music,” Roth says of his friend, now fully recovered from throat cancer that had threatened to rob his singular voice. “When you get into the studio with Levon, you realize what a world class musician he is. He seemed to care very deeply about the tracks we were cutting, and it was extremely gratifying to see him so into it.” Here, as on his own terrific new album Dirt Farmer, Levon is as feisty as ever.
The sessions took place at Helm’s Woodstock studio, and just about everything was cut live, including Roth’s stunning leads on “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Unchained Melody.” The latter is a tribute to his late friend Danny Gatton, who had often spoken with Roth about their cutting it together in this style.
Roth began his career in 1969 fronting Steel, a powerhouse band. At age 18, he began to work as an in-demand hired gun for singer/songwriters like Paul Simon, John Prine, Eric Andersen, Phoebe Snow, Art Garfunkel, Janis Ian and Loudon Wainwright III. After cementing his status as an MVP sideman and authoring the first three of numerous best selling guitar books, he began to focus on his own music with a series of solo albums. Roth and his wife Deborah, who was also his business partner, launched the groundbreaking instructional series Hot Licks, showcasing the performances of many of the world’s top musicians and shipping more than two million videos worldwide. Hot Licks became Roth’s sole focus until the 1983 EP Paint Job, followed by the album Lonely Street and then 1993’s classic Toolin’ Around. Being off the road afforded him more time to spend at home with his wife and young daughters Gillian and Lexie. Among the gigs he did accept were with Simon & Garfunkel on their 1983 reunion tour, Duane Eddy in 1984, and creating the bulk of the guitar parts for the 1985 film Crossroads.
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Roth continued to cherry-pick playing opportunities while continuing his work with Hot Licks. During this time his daughter Gillian, a skilled guitarist and actress, was selected to perform in a Nickelodeon series about a female band. The family made plans to move to Florida where the show was being taped. And then, two days after Gillian recorded the show’s theme song, a car accident took the life of both Deborah and Gillian. In the weeks and months following the horrible event, Roth recalls: “There were no colors anymore. I couldn’t tell whether the sky was blue or gray. For a long time, it felt like time stood still.”
Arlen and Lexie shared the experience of immeasurable loss, which brought them closer than ever. Arlen’s 2002 album Drive It Home, was a deeply moving tribute to Deborah and Gillian. In 2005, Lexie, then 18, recorded her first solo album, One Long Blink, co-produced with her father, featuring her haunting voice and his transcendent guitar playing. “The album was a great healing experience for both of us,” Roth says. Falling in love with and marrying Maria completed Roth’s healing process. That same year saw the release of Arlen’s Landscape, a tour-de-force of instrumental guitar fireworks.
This series of positive experiences enabled Roth to throw himself into Toolin’ Around Woodstock. “For the first time in my solo career, I’ve been able to focus just on the music,” he says. “The best way to describe what I’m feeling now is that time is finally moving forward again.”