The Acoustic Guitar Is Alive and Well Today in Concert Performances
– by Lee Greene
If you are getting on in years, as I am, you will recall a period in American music when the acoustic guitar was a vital instrument in popular music. It was played extensively by hit pop artists like Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, and many others. And there were a variety of virtuosos on the instrument engaged in successful careers producing 33 1/3 rpm albums and performing concert tours – one of my favorite albums of the era was the 1974 all acoustic guitar album by John Fahey, Peter Lang and Leo Kottke (http://amzn.to/1AHCLiw). The 12 acoustic guitar songs on that album were so beautiful, soothing and relaxing that I would often play that album to relieve stress, calm down to be able to study, or unwind at the end of the day to help get to sleep. Still do.
But something happened to the music industry, and the acoustic guitar has largely disappeared from the commercial music scene. In the words of acoustic guitarist, Peter Janson, one of the members of American Guitar Masters, “The major changes in the music industry, starting around 2007, unfortunately included the severe diminishing of focus on music like ours in favor of the big money genres. Instrumental acoustic guitar music and acoustic singer and songwriter styles of music were at one time placed in such categories as new age, acoustic instrumental and folk and Americana.” But Janson notes those genres are no longer listed in the iTunes store, and though new age remains a Grammy Awards category, folk and Americana has become American roots or regional roots, and contemporary instrumental isn’t necessarily acoustically oriented. “And of course the brick and mortar music stores are almost non-existent today.”
Yet, there are still virtuoso acoustic guitar players pursuing careers in American music today. One of the few remaining opportunities for acoustic guitar players to reach an American audience are the several guitar festivals held around the country each year, where the artists have an opportunity to perform, “jam all night”, connect with the audience, and meet one another. At one of those festivals, in Healdsburg, CA circa 2009, acoustic guitarist extraordinaire Peter Janson of Boston, MA heard fellow acoustic guitarist Steve Davison of Little Rock, AR play, was impressed, and began a correspondence between the two. That led to a comparison of their touring schedules, and generated the idea of joining together for concert touring. Later, at the Montreal Jazz Festival, acoustic guitarist Larry Pattis of Eugene, OR left a CD for Peter Janson, which presented some of Pattis’s acoustic guitar pieces; Janson was again impressed, leading him to expend considerable effort to search out and find Pattis at the huge Montreal Festival and begin a similar correspondence, comparing touring schedules, and eventually arriving at the idea of joining each of the three premiere solo acoustic guitar players for shared concert touring. With a considerable amount of grunt work in contacting venues, working out schedules and travel arrangements, etc., the three guitarists eventually began joint touring and their touring collaboration, American Guitar Masters (http://americanguitarmasters.com/), was born.
Janson says, “Our American Guitar Masters tours are special to me because Steve, Larry and I share a devotion to the heart and soul of acoustic guitar music, and to the music that is tied to history and tradition. At these concerts, we get to bring forth the highest level of emotive qualities of the music while making it fresh and authentic. Our goal is to help people have a great night out listening to some cool, if somewhat obscure, music.”
American Guitar Masters set their concerts in smaller intimate venues, rather than the large halls frequented by most commercial music acts of this era. “[I]n today’s world: music is accessible as never before. But something may have been lost in the process: intimacy – the quality of the musical experience to transport the listener to his or her own place, above the noise and confusion of the culture. American Guitar Masters Concerts bring that intimacy back to the audience. This means the artist must provide much more than music that is pleasantly diverting. It must be music that not only entertains, but is also evocative and engrossing, with roots in tradition and a sense of history, while addressing and capturing the sounds, rhythms, and urgency of the contemporary world. Intimacy in performance also involves more than simply having notes come out of the guitar. It involves establishing a deep connection between the artist and the audience, with a deep respect for the audience on the part of the performer. The music must be compelling, to be sure, but the concert experience must also be much more than the artist saying, in effect, ‘Sit there and watch me play.’”
Currently, American Guitar Masters are engaged on a West Coast Tour, which began in the New Year in Guemes Island, WA; with stops in Sutter Creek, CA; Willits, CA; at the well known Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley, CA; in Moss Landing, CA; Fresno, CA; Santa Barbara, CA; Los Angeles, CA; and concluding in Phoenix, AZ. On Friday, January 9, the West Coast Tour brought them to the Imperial Event Center, in Medford, OR, where I had the fortunate opportunity and distinct pleasure to catch one of their concert performances. It was one of the most enjoyable evenings I have had, attending a concert, in almost 40 years – and I have been to LOTS of concerts.
First of all, each of these three musicians is a top-notch guitar player – each exploited the opportunity more than once to show off his preeminent chops with the instrument. They took turns playing round robin solo numbers, occasionally interspersing a duet between Mr. Janson and Mr. Davison between the solos. But the concert consisted of more than just the sum of the many guitar performances. The musicians interacted extensively with their audience. Every song was preceded by an introduction, usually an interesting story providing some background about the song and its place in the musician’s life, as well as the audience’s lives – with references to 9/11, the upcoming NCAA Football National Championship Game involving the Oregon Ducks, the recent terrorist attacks in France, etc. The three guitarists interacted with one another, playing off one another. “What happens in the band, stays in the band!” [Raucous laughter] There were various questions put to the audience, seeking a show of hands response (“How many people NEVER raise their hands in public?”), and even a contest awarding a free CD to the first audience member to correctly guess the title of a well known song, set in an unusual arrangement.
Mr. Janson (who was the only one of the three who sang with his guitar playing – the other two were purely instrumental) performed many of his popular recorded songs including: Rosalie, the T-Bone Walker tune Call It Stormy Monday, Black Waterside, and Call It Wishes, among others.
Mr. Davison’s solos included: Dancing Rabbit Creek, The Last Steamboat to Calico Rock, The Afterthought, and Bayou Bartholomew Blues.
Mr. Pattis performed a nice selection of his recorded CD tunes, including Kettle Moraine; Hands of Time; his original version of the Australian anthem, Waltzing Matilda; several songs honoring canine pets: Buddy Boy, Tommy Tommy 123, and Tillie’s Jig; and the 9/11 inspired song, Homeland Suite. As mentioned,
Mr. Davison and Mr. Janson played several duets including Monterey Bay, The Water Is Wide, and Jubilation. All told, it was a full evening of incomparable guitar playing, entertaining story telling, and exquisite music. The audience clearly was happy and from the many expressions of thanks and compliments offered to the musicians afterwards, it was obvious that the audience members more than felt they had received their money’s worth.
Where I usually include a representative video clip with these reviews to attempt to capture a sense of the event, it is really difficult to do so for this concert – there was such an extensive variety of excellent musical performances by each of the three standout musicians, as well as the duets, plus the storytelling and interactions with the audience. It’s impossible to capture all that in a 30 second video clip. So I am offering instead 2 clips – first, a short excerpt audio clip presenting some of Mr. Pattis’s exemplary guitar playing, on the song, Kettle Moraine:
Audio recording of the last minute of American Guitar Masters performer Larry Pattis playing his song, “Kettle Moraine”, on acoustic guitar live in concert at the Imperial Event Center in Medford, OR on Jan. 9, 2015
And second, the full performance video clip [used with explicit permission] of the Steve Daveson-Peter Janson duet, Jubilation, including the lead-up introduction by Steve Davison:
American Guitar Masters performers Steve Davison and Peter Janson play the Davison tune, “Jubilation”, on acoustic guitars live in concert at the Imperial Event Center in Medford, OR on Jan. 9, 2015, with an introduction by Steve Davison.
If you have any appreciation for acoustic guitar playing, past or present, these artists are a real treat, and if an opportunity is presented for you to catch one of their concerts, it should not be missed. The dates, locations and ticketing info for their current concert tour can be accessed at http://americanguitarmasters.com/tour.html. Their recordings are also available (online of course, as brick and mortar record stores are a thing of the past). For info on Larry Pattis and his recordings, see http://www.larrypattis.com. For info on Steve Davison and his recordings, see http://www.stevedavison.com. For info on Peter Janson and his recordings, see http://www.peterjanson.com/. Finally, I offer a tip of the hat to Imperial Event Center, the intimate performance space which hosted this concert and proved to be such a hospitable and successful venue for this event. I definitely will return to their space to attend future concerts and I would encourage Southern Oregon music fans to check out their schedule of upcoming concerts at http://imperialeventcenter.com/news/.
This review was originally published by the Jacksonville Review on January 13, 2015 at http://jacksonvillereview.com/acoustic-guitar-alive-well-today-concert-performances/