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Jeff of all trades

Music | Christian drummer Jeff Bowders' album is a musical and spiritual journey

Issue: "Libyan exodus," March 26, 2011

At 34, the rock 'n' roll drummer Jeff Bowders has crammed a lot into his resumé. Besides having toured and/or recorded as a self-described "hired gun" with Rebecca St. James, Puddle of Mudd, Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big, Racer X), Justin Derrico (Pink), and Alcatrazz, he also plays on television soundtracks, writes instructional books (Double Bass Drumming: The Mirrored Groove System, Essential Drumset Fills), teaches at the Musicians Institute College of Contemporary Music in Hollywood, and hopes to start someday a clothing line featuring T-shirts emblazoned with truth-affirming slogans like "2+2=4."

He is, one might say, a Jeff of All Trades. He's also a politically conservative Christian who's not ashamed to thank Chuck Swindoll and Dennis Prager in his liner notes.

But there's one area in which Bowders, his pedagogical inclinations notwithstanding, may be less than rock solid: spelling. According to Merrian-Webster, he has bollixed the last word in the title of his recently released all-instrumental solo album, The Pilgrimage of Thingamuhjig.

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"Actually, I did wrestle with how to spell it," Bowders told me. "But it just seemed to be the best way to spell it without mispronouncing it."

The album, which besides front-and-center drumming features the guitar playing of Paul Gilbert, Michael Elsner, and, on one song, Poison's Richie Kotzen, is as heavy and woofer-rattling a recording as any that has come down the 21st-century pike. But, because it has no lyrics, Bowders spells out its tale of spiritual progress in the libretto-like track annotations. They begin "As Thingamuhjig begins to logically contemplate the existential questions which relentlessly haunt him, he realizes the answers he seeks cannot be fulfilled" and end "Now, with relentless resolve, Thingamuhjig embarks on his most transforming quest yet . . . sanctification."

"I wasn't even thinking of doing a concept album," he says. "I was just making up a story about some journey that didn't really have any sort of spiritual slant to it. But the more I started writing it, I was like, 'Why would I want to fool around with anything that's just fiction for the sake of being fiction?' If I was going to write a fictitious story, I'd want it to have a more applicable purpose."

And as someone who has always preferred "backdoor evangelism" and "instrumental music," he didn't want to make the album explicitly one dimensional by writing lyrics and hiring a singer to sing them. "You have a little bit more freedom when you don't have to worry about the vocals. Not that there isn't creative music with vocals, but it does bring in another factor that may put up more barriers than I would like to hurdle."

"Besides," he adds, laughing, "I'm just too selfish to have that on my drumming album."

Ageless grace

One singer whom no musician would be too selfish to have on his album is the New Orleans living legend Aaron Neville, whose latest all-gospel album, I Know I've Been Changed (Tell It/EMI), has been quietly gaining media traction since its release last November.

Produced by Joe Henry, the album finds the most famous Neville Brother defying his age at the time of the recording (69, he turned 70 in January) by singing a set of gospel oldies in the same uniquely fluttery tenor that propelled him to temporary solo stardom in the late '60s and permanent solo stardom 20 years later.

The stripped-down accompaniment keeps the focus not only on Neville's voice but also on the words, none of which cut to the chase any more quickly than these from the Satan-defying "Don't Let Him Ride": "If you let him drive your car, then you've surely gone too far."

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