Lyle Brewer is 29, which is unremarkable until you consider his achievements. For a decade, he has been both behind the scenes and up front as one of Boston’s most versatile and admired musicians.
Every music community has a linchpin, someone whose name isn’t always on the marquee but whose contributions are essential to the whole. Brewer is that kind of artist. He’s a young-gun guitarist steeped in jazz, blues, pop, and rock, with no firm allegiance to any of those genres. His tally of credits, on albums and in live performances, runs as deep as his knowledge of his instrument: Dennis Brennan, Miss Tess, Ryan Montbleau, Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles, and the list goes on.
Going into the new year, though, Brewer finds himself at a crossroads. He’s already a seasoned musician, a distinction that sounds nice but doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. His day job putting together portfolios for legal firms helps, but supporting himself as a full-time artist is not an easy road.
“Music has given me everything,” Brewer says. “At a certain point, if I become really successful from playing music, then that’s awesome. A more realistic goal right now is, can I look at my guitar and still want to play? Having played and toured with a lot of musicians, it still comes down to me in my bedroom trying to find things on my guitar and getting excited. I’ll do anything to keep that feeling.”
Brewer has just finished a new album, which needs to be mixed and mastered before he hopes to release it in March or April. He’ll likely call it “Lyle Brewer,” and it is indeed an introduction of sorts. Where most of his previous records have been a mix of covers and originals, his latest is comprised entirely of his own songs. They’re not about flashy technique or mind-numbing solos. They’re thoughtful, artfully composed instrumentals.
You hear echoes of the greats in Brewer’s playing — Joe Pass, Duane Allman, John Scofield, all of whom he acknowledges as key influences. Brewer’s guitar tone is clean but supple, luminous like Les Paul one minute, and quicksilver like a Chet Atkins gallop the next. He’s an expressive guitarist, and exclusively instrumental. (“If I sang, I wouldn’t have too much of a career,” he quips.)
As heard on a 2012 group effort, “Wicked Live!” (recorded at Q Division in Somerville), Brewer’s dexterity is often jaw-dropping. Not every guitarist can swerve from the swampy stomp of “Green Onions” into the moonglow of “Mr. Sandman,” and then pull back for an elegant reading of “Stella by Starlight” — always with the same sophistication and feeling for the music.
That’s simply how Brewer has always worked, going back to his days at New England Conservatory. He studied jazz performance, but dropped out after 3½ years. There were personal reasons, but also the hunch that maybe he wasn’t cut out for academia.
Brewer, who grew up in Andover and now lives in Medford, remembers the time he had to skip a session of his “Career Skills” class in order to take a paying gig. He was dead broke and, with rent looming, $300 was too much money to pass up; his teacher, however, warned him that he’d be docked a whole grade on his final project. Brewer played the gig anyway, knowing full well that his real career skills would come from experience, not the classroom.
In the intervening years, Brewer has been a familiar face around town and on recordings by too many artists to name. He has set up shop at Atwood’s Tavern, the roots-music haven in Cambridge where on Sunday he’ll start a new weekly afternoon residency. Backed by Mike Piehl on drums and Jef Charland on bass, the trio bills its sets as “Dadrock” since all three are fathers. (Brewer has a young son with Borges.)
This past Sunday, the group played to a thin but attentive crowd at Atwood’s at the end of a holiday week, seamlessly maneuvering from originals to interpretations, including a sublime take on the Beatles’ “Michelle.” (Brewer has a side project called Eleanor Bigsby, which does instrumental Beatles covers; it opened for Lake Street Dive earlier this week at the Sinclair.)
For his forthcoming album, Brewer enlisted Kimon Kirk to produce, drawing on the veteran local musician’s long history playing with some of the scene’s luminaries (Session Americana, Will Dailey, Dietrich Strause). In both trio and solo settings, they recorded at Dimension Sound in Jamaica Plain with an emphasis on making a strong album regardless of its financial prospects.
“More than anything I’ve done, I’m most proud of this album we just tracked,” Brewer says. “It’s interesting: There’s no real plan for it. I don’t have someone lined up to put it out.”
Having admired Brewer’s work for the past several years, Kirk was eager to work with him and sees his latest as a major step forward.
“The songwriting is what makes this record different from the other ones,” Kirk says. “Lyle’s learning curve is so high. He really wants to make a record that’s an artistic statement of who he is. Not that his prior ones weren’t that. But I think he wanted to do something a bit more outside the box, which thrilled me as the producer.”
Talking with Brewer, you get the sense that he’s incredibly humble. He counters compliments with an impassioned, “Thanks, man,” as if he’s rarely praised. He’s aware of his strong work ethic and the high esteem in which he’s held – and he’s just as likely to poke holes in his ego. He’s had a stutter his whole life, and he lampoons it with a T-shirt he sells at his shows: “Luh, Luh, Luh, Luh, Lyle,” it goes on and on, to exaggerate the staggered elocution of how he’d pronounce his name.
“There’s a humility to his musicality that’s unusual — the word I hate to use, but it’s apt, is maturity,” Kirk says. “I don’t know if he’s always been this way, but he’s kind of a couple steps ahead most of the time.” He likens Brewer to two other noted Boston guitarists, Duke Levine and Kevin Barry: “It transcends chops and solos. For my money, Lyle is one of the best guitar players in the country. I wouldn’t say that lightly, but I believe it.”
Guitar wasn’t Brewer’s first instrument, by the way. He picked it up at age 12, but before that he rocked a mean recorder in third grade and basically played Green Day songs on it. He eventually added drums and saxophone to his repertoire, but began taking guitar seriously under the guidance of a no-nonsense but inspiring instructor named Marty Hayden. Brewer recently established the Mary Brewer Memorial Scholarship, in honor of his mother, to help guitar students take lessons with his old teacher. (More information at www.marybrewerscholarship.com.)
“I just have to play,” Brewer says. “It’s hard to talk about this stuff without coming off as corny or pretentious, but it’s freedom. It’s being able to express yourself, to become a different person. It’s such a specific experience that it’s like doing a drug or being in love with someone. There are a lot of different things you could do in life, and playing guitar is the best thing I’ve come up with.”