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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Walk in the Park with John Sieger and Greg Koch

The guitar hero meets the ace of song

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The partnership between Milwaukee’s towering guitar wizard, Greg Koch, and its dean of songwriting, John Sieger, seems almost predestined. But the summit was long pondered and slow in coming. “I’d known of his magical powers,” says Koch. “The idea for collaborating was ruminating in my cranium.”

And then the hand of chance brought them together in an apparently random encounter outside a coffee shop on Labor Day 2012. Songs sparked into existence almost immediately. Although the two men live only miles apart in Wauwatosa, they worked primarily through the Internet. Koch maintains a vigorous touring schedule, often on behalf of Fender, and records a prolific series of instructional videos for Wildwood Guitars in Colorado. During all that hotel room downtime, Koch made laptop recordings on guitar and sent them to Sieger.

“I was getting great stuff from Greg every day,” Sieger recalls. “He’s hyperactively creative. His great ideas are twisted in a way that only could be done by someone who knows the rules and decides to break them. It doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t know the rules.”

They are harmonious partners not only because Koch writes the music and Sieger the words, but from contrasting yet complementary personalities: Koch is more gregarious-than-life while the wry Sieger plays it closer to the vest. The fruits of their collaboration were first heard on Koch’s 2013 CD, Plays Well with Others. Another batch of their songs have surfaced on A Walk in the Park, a new disc credited to John Sieger with Greg Koch.

Unlike the power guitar album Plays Well with Others, nothing distracts from the songs on A Walk in the Park. The relaxed backing by members of Sieger’s band Semi-Twang, Koch (and his son Dylan drumming softly on the opening number) provides framework and filigree for the words and music. The soulful “Country Boy” sounds like a lost classic by ’60s songwriter Dan Penn; the funkier twanging numbers bare comparison with Little Feat’s Lowell George. “Louise at the Pawn Shop” is a humorous take on murder balladry, a “Stagger Lee” with an aggrieved woman cast as the killer. The language is as marvelous as the music that sets the cadences, drawing from keen observations on the many ways of love and desire, both hoped for and thwarted.

“I’m not usually a storyteller but Greg’s music seemed to demand stories,” Sieger says. “The music is strange—diminished chords, odd chords, what jazz musicians call tension chords. This leads to a place somewhere in between Mose Allison and Steely Dan.”

So far, Koch and Sieger have written 66 or 67 songs, depending on who you ask. Walk in the Park will not be the final chapter in the Koch-Sieger songbook. “We’ve got so many left over,” Sieger says. “If Greg’s too busy, I’ll just do a project on my own.”

John Sieger and Greg Koch perform Sunday, April 6, at Shank Hall. The Tritonics open the show at 6 p.m.