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Jules Leyhe: New Guitar Heroics From Oakland California

Mark Smotroff finds a fret wizard living in his backyard…

In this month’s stack of compact discs sent to me for review consideration there was a lot of music that didn’t resonate with me and as you know I almost always only report on music that I enjoy. But… at the bottom of the pile I found on a CD by an artist I’ve never heard of before and my ears and eyes perked up right from the crash opening of the album.

Jules Leyhe is a young guitar prodigy who has been making a local name for himself the past bunch of years, it turns out, rubbing elbows with some pretty heavyweight cats. According to his press materials, Leyhe “has shared the stage with blues guitar legends Buddy Guy and Jimmie Vaughan, and has appeared in Guitar Player magazine multiple times, including in the August and September issues in an interview with fellow blues guitarist Taj Mahal. A Berklee College of Music grad who focused on blues and slide guitar, Leyhe understands that part of being a bluesman involves living thus he incorporates elements from his Bay Area lifestyle into his artful music.”

Indeed, the thing about his new album — called Your First Rodeo — that really hooked me is his wonderful mashup of styles and sounds, integrated so seemingly effortlessly. I use the world “seemingly” purposefully as I know that this is not an easy thing to do — it requires some deep knowledge and appreciation of the musical forms to emulate and build upon them. 

So expect to hear everything from chunky salsa samba sounds to deep grooves mashed up with haunting Hawaii-meets-Nashville overdriven slide guitar floating through. Then, turning on a dime, listen for funky near hip-hop beats driving a track featuring unusual layered trumpet soloing — I don’t know for sure but it sounds kind of like what I imagine might happen if someone sampled an early 70s Zappa big band track

Your First Rodeo launches like a rocket with a slinky-salsa-y, near-reggae, funky-blues called “Taco Truck” featuring some gorgeous harmony-layered slide guitar solos and rich contributions from his band.  “Fight The Night” gets the hippity-hop-planet-blues-rock vibe groovin’ before strutting down “High Street.” The latter feels like what might have happened had Edgar Winter’s classic first band (click here to listen) jammed with 1974-era Chicago at a Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips show (think the grooves on “Fight Test” and parts of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink RobotsPt. 2”). 

“The Journey” works off of a chill vibe that roughly backwards-echoes Bob Dylan’s “Knocking On Heavens Door” with a lyrical and David Lindley-esque electric slide guitar solo lushly layered on top. It is really quite gorgeous, especially as the song suddenly changes up and gives way to a muted trumpet solo which recalls no less than Miles Davis. Those double-tracked horns pop up again on the sweet closing farewell “Sad But True,” where nicely recorded acoustic drums come head-to-head with a more acoustic-leaning electric slide guitar vibe.

What gets me excited here is not just the guitar heroics. I can’t say that “anyone can do that” — because they can’t — but the one-two-punch here is the artist’s combination of those mad guitar skills with rich songwriting prowess.  Leyhe’s clear knowledge and appreciation of a wide swath of musical styles makes for a heady brew in his own compositions. 

The sound on Your First Rodeo is really quite good for an independently produced album (currently only available on CD and eventually streaming). It particularly sounds great in the car but also rocks in the home stereo. I hope it was recorded in high resolution because it would sure be nice to hear this on vinyl or in high resolution on Blu-ray Disc.  

Your First Rodeo is expected to be released next week. There is one preview track on his Soundcloud page which we’ve posted below for you to check out.

Until then, there are a number of Leyhe’s earlier albums and EPs streaming on Qobuz (click here) and Tidal (click here) which you can also explore. I plan to be checking them out in the weeks and months ahead. He also has a bunch of different recordings up on his Soundcloud page (click here) and of course on his Bandcamp page (click here).

I’m really looking forward to hearing more from this young guitarist and to see where his music goes, but for right now his first rodeo is a winner.


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