There’s a warm comfort to delving into an entry in Steve Howe’s now quarter century-running Homebrew series; a kind of low-key, casual examination of his personal tape archives and home recordings that acts as a companion to the more polished studio albums of his catalogue. Homebrew tracks don’t tend to be lengthy prog rock works of epic scope, but shorter pieces of varying styles that illustrate the core aspects of his songwriting and the germs of ideas later expanded or changed over time. As such, these tracks are never in danger of overstaying their welcome.
Comparisons can be drawn to Anthony Phillips’ Private Parts And Pieces series, with tracks that could run the risk of being considered unworthy or mere snippets but are in fact shaped into engaging albums with appeal to both longtime fans and collectors and more casual newcomers. It’s this listenability factor and cohesiveness which are actually among the most impressive qualities of the series. The 21 tracks on this seventh and latest volume span five different decades, ranging from 1978 – 2016, and for the first time they are pieces not intended for use elsewhere – they are not going to be redone or expanded on, or offered to anyone else. This is their only home, and in that sense Homebrew 7 is the freshest and most unique entry in the series. The accompanying booklet is peppered with colourful photos of nature (taken by the man himself), and as always, notes are provided for each track explaining their history, as well as lyrics – for the four pieces that contain them, that is.
It’s interesting to note the numerous tracks that stem from the early 1980s when Howe was smack dab in the middle of the glossy, commercial powerhouse Asia. But his traditional style of composition never left him during that period, and these pieces traverse multiple styles, from the delicate (A Lady She Is) to quirky (In One Life, featuring the famous early 80s ‘crickets’ drum machine sound), rolling and melodic (Cold Winds, featuring a then-teenaged Dylan Howe on drums), dreamy (Deanscape, whose title is a nod to a cover artist Howe fans will be familiar with), and sentimental (Devon Girl). The strongest of this period, though, is Outstanding Deal, a piece that could easily have made it to any of Howe’s solo or band albums, particularly with the vocal duties in the capable hands of someone like John Wetton.
The lone track from elsewhere in that decade is A Matter Of Fact, a rather striking Telecaster-based instrumental with Howe adding synth guitar and keyboard bass, exemplifying the period (1986) but oddly enough not sounding dated. I don’t know why this piece was overlooked for so long, but thankfully it has found a home here.
Two of the tracks date slightly earlier to the late 1970s. Space Void, from 1978, is essentially Howe messing about on synthesizers and achieving a kind of sci-fi vibe. In the liner notes, he casually mentions Turkish composer İlhan Mimaroğlu as being ‘an influence to us’ in those days, ‘us’ presumably meaning Yes. The more standard From Another Day is a complete 180, recorded during The Steve Howe Album sessions and consisting only of acoustic guitar and Howe’s typically brave vocals of the day. It’s unclear as to why this was left off of that album, but it’s not a particular highlight of this set.
The more lighthearted pieces balance this collection wonderfully, most notably the opening cut The Glider with its joyous melodies and breezy beat, the jaunty Be Natural, accented by Howe’s trademark fluttering guitar swirls, and the mischievous Strange Wayfarer with its climbing melody laid over an infectious groove.
One track here does actually appear in altered form elsewhere. The original version of While Rome’s Burning from Turbulence was re-worked and recorded over three different periods; a well-composed and fleshed-out song titled Half Way. Howe notes the lyrics are ‘about someone I was trying to work with’ (in 1997), ‘but too many things kept getting in the way’… it’s fairly easy to ascertain who he’s referring to there but I probably shouldn’t speculate. The twisting, coiling guitars of Safe Haven and the bluesy The Only One add further colours to the palette, while the comfort of more typical Howe instrumentals like October, Touchstone, and Tender Hooks – though all distinctly different styles – round out the album nicely.
Despite the fact that the tracks often hop from era to era, are recorded in different places with wildly differing technology and are composed with the naivete of a young man or the wisdom of a senior citizen, Howe’s music remains timeless. His style was as unusual in the 1970s as it is now, and he has spent more than fifty years bucking trends and remaining largely impervious to influence from his peers and contemporaries. In short, he’s a natural and an original, and fully deserving of his ‘icon’ status – and Homebrew 7 is a perfect illustration of why.
Homebrew 7 is released on 30 July.