July 15, 2024

There are names in any given artistic field that are mostly unknown to the general public but of whom a simple mention immediately lights up knowledgeable fans’ eyes. Such is the case in guitar player land with Phil Keaggy.

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Keaggy first came to public notice as the focal point of Ohio-based improvisational jam band trio Glass Harp. He became a Christian during his time with the band, which was well-known in the Midwest but remained frustratingly outside the realm of wide acceptance nationwide during its tenure in the early 1970s. After three albums, Keaggy chose to go solo, recording his debut “What A Day” in 1973. In honor of its 50th anniversary, the album has received a lavish rerelease, with bonus tracks and all the appropriate sonic enhancements five decades of advances in recorded sound processing have enabled without obscuring what made the album a treasure in its time and still a delight in 2023.

To say “What A Day” is a solo album puts it as accurately as possible. Keaggy recorded all instruments and vocals himself. This was not an unheard-of approach in the day; remember “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield? It also turned 50 in 2023. But back to “What A Day.”

There is a gentle, joyful lilt to Keaggy’s melodies, buoyed by a mostly acoustic backing plus light percussion, occasionally decorated with layered vocals and topped by the liquid tasteful fire of his electric playing. Keaggy has the gift of writing inventive tunes that are simultaneously fresh and easy on the ears. This isn’t the intense jam-heavy work of his Glass Harp days. Instead, Keaggy offered an outing that manages a graceful balance between creativity and comfort.

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Keaggy is a rare breed possessing finely honed compositional and improvisational skills. A prime example is “Walking With Our Lord,” with Keaggy bouncing off its neo-Baroque foundation to occasionally dash into progressive rock freedom before reining himself back toward its original path. (The video lists an incorrect song title.)

The album’s highlights are “Rejoice,” which concludes with an extended instrumental session offering tantalizing glimpses of Keaggy’s aforementioned improvisational skills, and the album’s title track, which amid its catchy melody contains one of the more clever wordplays to grace Christian rock:

When I get Home
I will see all
The holy men I read about
Peter and John,
James, Luke, and Paul
And brother Tom without a doubt

But wait, there’s more.

The CD and digital release, plus vinyl sometime in 2024, contains two CDs worth of bonus material that is anything but pointless filler. The first features numerous alternate takes and remixes of album tracks, most taking the songs down to their fundamentals. The second is replete with song demos and a lengthy interview with Keaggy recorded back in the day.

It is rare for a 50-year-old album to not sound dated. “What A Day” pulls this off by dint of it being a unique creation. The album did not attempt to be commercial or sound like anything recorded during its days of creation by other artists, Christian or otherwise. Instead, Keaggy guided it with a child-like, but not childish, playful glee. It was not an exercise in guitar virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake, although Keaggy’s astonishing skill was on full display throughout. Instead, it was the beautiful result of what happens when a well-honed gift is used not to show off the creating process but the finished creation. Phil Keaggy has made many superb albums in his lengthy career, which is still going strong. On “What A Day,” he captured an enthralling moment that is more than welcome back in our present insanity-drenched age.

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