Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead)
Bob Weir (Grateful Dead, RatDog)
Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna)
David Nelson and Dave Torbert (New Riders of the Purple Sage)
Jerry Miller, (Moby Grape)
Matthew Kelly (RatDog, Kingfish)
Michael Falzarano (Hot Tuna)
Mark Karan (The Other Ones, RatDog)
Austin deLone (Elvis Costello, Boz Scaggs)
Barry Sless (Phil Lesh & Friends, David Nelson Band)
Scotty Quik (Sammy Hagar).
You may have heard about it, or read about it. Now, finally, after three decades, hear it for yourself -- in all of its glory -- legendary San Francisco guitarist/producer Bill Cutler’s solo debut, Crossing the Line.
“I first started work on this album in the 1970s,” says Cutler (David Rea & Slewfoot, Mystery Tramps, Heroes, Nu-Models). “A few years ago, after some 18 years of lying dormant, the original tapes were restored, new tracks were cut, and finally, this record was completed.”
It’s a fact of life, and rule of the music industry: When things appear too good to be true, they usually are. This is certainly not the case with Cutler’s Crossing the Line, which features stars past, present and future, including Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead), Bob Weir (Grateful Dead, RatDog), Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane), David Nelson and Dave Torbert (New Riders of the Purple Sage), Jerry Miller, (Moby Grape), harmonica ace Matthew Kelly (RatDog, Kingfish), Michael Falzarano (Hot Tuna), Mark Karan (The Other Ones, RatDog), pianist Austin deLone (Elvis Costello, Boz Scaggs), steel guitarist Barry Sless (Phil Lesh & Friends, David Nelson Band), and guitarist Scotty Quik (Sammy Hagar).
So how do we describe the tracks? One struggles to find a suitable comparison to this neo-vintage grand work – it touches on, responds to, and yet is unique from so many great rock records. We can say with certainty, however, that Crossing the Line spans a wide spectrum of classic and time-tested rock songwriting: bits of the album recall The Band’s Music From Big Pink, the quiet thunder of Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold, Jackson Browne’s seminal hard-life-on-the-road masterpiece Running On Empty, as well as the tuneful playfulness of Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and deep grooves of Blues for Allah.
“Crossing the Line is really a songwriter’s record”, says Cutler. “I learned a lot from listening to Neil Young and Jackson Browne. They both used musicians in very specific ways in order to serve the song. That made a lasting impression on me.”
“In addition to being a great improvisational guitar player, Jerry Garcia was a terrific sideman,” says Cutler, who first met Garcia in 1968. “When I worked with him, I was surprised at the immediate chemistry he had with my band. Not very many people know that side of Jerry because he wasn’t often perceived as a support player.”
Though technology played an important part in completing this 14-song, Russell Bond-mixed opus, Crossing the Line is not some sterile, slice-and-dice digital recording. Classic and modern tracks meld together, demonstrating the evolution of this singer-songwriter and the high level of musicianship featured on these tracks. These players change mood, feel, and texture so fluidly that each musical gesture – tiny or grand -- supports, underscores, and highlights the many sides of Cutler’s songwriting sensibilities. Whether it is the slow burnin’, gospel-esque ballad “Ridin’ High”, the shock-and-awe social commentary of “Cry of the City”, the catchy mid-tempo rocker “Engine 99”, or the country, Cajun-spiced feel of “Ballad of Bras Coupe”, the combination of musical chops and roots-rockin’ energy intermingle perfectly to create a classic-yet-modern Northern Californian vibe.
“Starlite Jamboree”, a tribute to Garcia, came out of a loose jam Cutler had with Garcia. When Cutler heard the sad news of Jerry’s passing (in 1995), he felt compelled to complete the tune -- one that carries with it a poignancy that Cutler could not have imagined when he first tinkered with its arrangement.
“One of the things that Jerry and I used to talk about was this idea of a ‘Starlite Jamboree’, a place where dead and live musicians could play together in some netherworld, like an episode of the Twilight Zone,” Cutler says. “I had some tracks of Jerry playing over the changes to the song. When I heard the news that Jerry died, I was devastated. I picked up my guitar and the first thing I played was the riff to ‘Starlite Jamboree’, because it reminded me of him. Spontaneously, I finished the song. I had never had a complete lyric for it until that moment.”
Crossing the Line is a dream deferred on many levels for the San Francisco-based Cutler. The music industry veteran was already on his way to becoming a teenage professional songwriter when his parents thought better of letting their 16-year-old son sign a big-time publishing contract. “I used to hang around the Brill Building in New York City,” explains Cutler. “I heard a lot of great pop material by those songwriters. When I got to
California, I learned the value of loosening up and letting tracks breathe. You could say that I’ve balanced my New York-disciplined side with my more jam-oriented Haight-Ashbury tendencies.”
Writing and recording Crossing the Line has been a long journey for Cutler. “It was a big challenge seeing this project through, but I feel it represents some of my best work as a songwriter,” Cutler says. “I can’t think of another album like this.”