As the guitarist in Stone Temple Pilots, Dean DeLeo helped define the alternative rock era, establishing a permanent presence on commercial radio with the now-staple hits “Interstate Love Song”, “Plush”, and “Vasoline”. Initially known for his chunky riffing style, DeLeo proved increasingly versatile as Stone Temple Pilots moved away from grunge and expanded into more refined expressions of soft rock, bossa nova, and jazz-tinged ballads that hewed closer to Burt Bacharach than hard rock. DeLeo, who sounded especially agile and inventive when playing solos, also showed that he had an extra touch of radiance at his fingertips when it came to riffs too. Where his 1990s peers often relied on force, DeLeo instead preferred color, crafting his parts out of giant, billowing chords suffused with shades of emotional contrast.
For anyone paying attention, a layer of finesse has always lurked under Stone Temple Pilots’ muscular riff-rock exterior. That said, it’s made sense all along to point to DeLeo’s brother Robert, the band’s bassist and resident jazz lover who also plays guitar, as the primary source of their material’s stealth elegance—especially since the DeLeos’ writing partnership formed the nucleus of their other groups Talk Show and Army of Anyone as well. Trip the Witch, Dean’s new long-distance collaboration with premiere Nashville session guitarist Tom Bukovac, calls into question whether the alt-rock icon, for all his achievements, has ever gotten as much recognition as his range calls for—even from his fans.
On paper, this project (named after a Scott Weiland-penned line from the Stone Temple Pilots deep cut “Ride the Cliché”) gives the appearance that DeLeo has paired up with a musician who can cover much the same ground as his brother—i.e: modes that we might assume lie outside of his wheelhouse. And Bukovac’s resumé, with over 800 recording credits to his name, certainly looks like it could cause even the most seasoned players to defer to him. In truth, though, the two guitarists mesh so seamlessly on their self-titled debut that it’s difficult (at first) to tell their playing apart. Throughout the album, Bukovac and DeLeo demonstrate such a natural empathy for each other’s playing that it’s hard to believe the two have actually never met in person. Clearly, they’ve found in one another the kind of instant, symbiotic—profound—a connection that every musician dreams of.
Longtime Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, who not only hails Bukovac as his favorite guitarist but his favorite musician he’s ever played with, breathlessly raved in a 2020 interview that Bukovac “can play any style of guitar, but in a way where you’d swear it’s the only thing he knows how to play—it’s not hyperbole to say he’s two decades in as the number-one session guitarist in Nashville.” Of course, all those recording gigs, coupled with years’ worth of touring as a sideman for the likes of Wynonna Judd, Joe Walsh, Faith Hill, Vince Gill, and John Fogerty have honed Bukovac’s much-sought-after ability to intuit what a given piece of music calls for, and to do so in a way that highlights the marquee artist. Here, however, Bukovac (who also hosts the instructional Homeskoolin’ YouTube series) doesn’t perform the typical “session player” role, diving head-first instead into the co-creation aspect as he and DeLeo meld into a fountain of ideas.
On album opener “Saturn We Miss You”—which features guest lead vocals courtesy of longtime Yes frontman Jon Anderson—Bukovac, DeLeo, and drummer Ian Fitchuk contain the intensity to a low simmer (while still managing to rock) as they put a new spin on the poppy new wave approach of, say, Dire Straits that’s as current as this morning’s dewdrops. One gentle guitar line follows another, which then follows another as various synth parts join the call-and-response in a consummate exercise in discretion. All the instruments work together as a whole, with every sound deliberately (and lovingly) placed in engineer/keyboardist Ryan Williams’ mix so as not to call attention to itself.
Likewise, on closing number “Reclaim My Time”, cascading acoustic and electric guitar parts gradually lift the music off the ground until the listener finds themselves soaring skyward encompassed in a dreamy swirl that can only be described as Bukovac and DeLeo reaching for transcendence in sound. If the cosmic glimmer of classic-era Stone Temple Pilots songs like “Still Remains” and “Glide” transported you to other realms, you can expect to experience an all-new level of rapture as Trip The Witch draws to a close.
Meanwhile, in-between the bookends of “Saturn” and “Reclaim”, DeLeo and Bukovac touch on a carousel of styles, including country (“Wall of Sound”), spaced-out slow blues (“Planet TD1”), ’60s folk-rock (“Surfside Lounge”), acoustic psychedelia meets carnival music (“Space Wagon”), etc. In the process, Trip the Witch echoes styles made famous by artists ranging from Ennio Morricone to the Byrds to Bill Frisell to Boards of Canada. And when the album treads similar ground as country-flavored Stone Temple Pilots tunes like “Wonderful” and “Bi-Polar Bear”, Bukovac steers the music clear of the tourist traps rock bands tend to fall into when they reach for the pedal steels. This is not to say that he and DeLeo stick to their respective “lanes”. Bukovac, it turns out, grew up as an avid fan of rock (including Stone Temple Pilots), while DeLeo can be powerfully expressive when playing slide.
But beyond just what the guitars do, all of the elements on Trip the Witch blend into an extraordinarily palatable front-to-back listen. Kudos to Bukovac and DeLeo for opting not to make a stereotypical “guitar album”. In fact, part of what’s so astonishing here is that both guitarists have the restraint to be so unassuming, never once failing to share the spotlight with Williams’ keyboards, Steve Mackey’s basslines, or the assortment of drummers who guide the various grooves. And, aside from two songs that feature vocals, everyone who appears does their small part to set a new bar for instrumental music more generally. Each of the album’s instrumentals conveys such a vivid sense of setting and mood that you might not even register the absence of words.
We can always expect musicians to pay lip service to the idea of finding instant rapport with one another—especially when they’re plugging a new collaboration—but Trip the Witch truly does sound like it was made by people who’ve been playing together for decades. The musical equivalent of a once-in-a-lifetime love affair that blossoms over a long period of writing letters back and forth, Trip the Witch proves that soulmates do exist, at least on the creative plane. Perhaps inadvertently, Tom Bukovac and Dean DeLeo have also left us with an encouraging reminder that, in the end, neither distance nor superficial differences can keep people separated when they choose to build on common ground.