Experiencing Fantastic Voyagers

The Fantastic Voyagers Festival has become one of my favorite Pittsburgh traditions these last few years. Certified-fantastic organizer Mike Tamburo has now curated three installments of the fest, and each has been a unique experience, always musically expansive and diverse. Though Tamburo has been staying close to home and concentrating on hammer dulcimer compositions for the last couple of years, he has toured extensively for the better part of a decade, and he’s forged enduring friendships with musicians from all over the country. When Mike sent me the early lineup for this years installment, having moved the proceedings to Jeffrey Alexander’s intimate Morning Glory Coffeehouse and declaring it a “return to the quiet”, I knew that it was going to be a great time, and that I would have to make every attempt to document the event for W&W.

…and documenting it proved no easy task! The sheer number of performances, coupled with the constant influx of bodies into the small space and the increasingly dim lighting as the nights wore on, made it very difficult to take videos on my trusty iPhone. So for the purpose of this post, we’ll have to be satisfied with a handful of blurry photos, a few nice videos, and my ability to recount the event in some amount of detail.

Saturday

Late Saturday morning, I got a voicemail message from Mike Tamburo : his CD burner was acting up, and he still had to finish the duplications for the festival’s compilation, which would span two discs and feature a song from every performer, with proceeds going to the out of town acts. Being no stranger to CD duplicating, I was happy to do this easy favor for Mike, so that he could concentrate on his other last minute preparations. I made sure to get to the venue early enough to help him stuff the CDs into the compilation packages, and before long, the musicians and spectators began to filter in.

As luck would have it, my duo Pairdown was the opener this year, and we performed a mostly instrumental set, concentrating on our most recent acoustic guitar duets. Being my own harshest critic, I won’t expound on our performance here, but I can say that if we weren’t the quietest act at the fest, we were definitely in the top three!

Festival Goers

Our short set was over in a flash, and the “stage” was set for Darren Myers, who played a short piece featuring tape collage, bells and percussive electric guitar. I really enjoyed the texture of the piece, as well as its brevity… whereas some experimental musicians tend to wring all the energy out of their explorations by dragging on for far too long, Darren’s performance was short and sweet, and the afternoon was off to a great start.

The next set was by Sundog Peacehouse, and I listened to their very pretty drones from under the floor, hanging out in the basement “green room”, even though according to a posted sign it was “ROCK STARS ONLY!” Though we may never know why I was allowed in, I took the time to catch up with Nick Schillace and Joel Peterson, good friends and guitar-slingers from Detroit. Nick had become the de facto headliner for the night, since Louisville’s R. Keenan Lawler was feeling under the weather and couldn’t make the trip. Also in the basement, warming/tuning up, was Pittsburgh’s Chris Niels, the day’s next slated performer.

I’ve become friends with Chris in the last year, and I really enjoy his approach to composition for the acoustic guitar. Chris has only been focusing on fingerstyle playing for a couple of years, and every time I have the opportunity to hear him, his technique has improved by leaps and bounds, and his compositions are tighter and more compelling. I was able to get a good spot to videotape his performance at this years fest, a piece entitled “After the Wrath of the Thorn”.

Next on the bill was the aforementioned Joel Peterson. I stayed planted on the floor and got some decent footage, though the sun was going down fast. Joel plays a number of instruments quite well, including the upright bass (see this video from last fall’s Lac La Belle show) but for his FV appearance, he performed a handful of solo guitar pieces on an old Guild D25.

The room darkened and candles were lit, and the next performance was by Mike Tamburo. I had been seeing Facebook updates for a few weeks, and it appeared that Mike was in the process of building a small army of gongs! Suspicions were confirmed at FV, and Mike performed for the first time on a set of four gongs of varying sizes. I must confess to knowing next to nothing about gong music, but I can say that the instruments that Mike had acquired posessed a nice array of tonalities, and produced some very interesting combinations of overtones. His composition was a bit long for my taste, but again, I’m a novice when it comes to following the structural arc of a gong performance.

After an oud performance by local Matt McDowell, the night’s second to last performance was by Ryan Emmett, aka Hunted Creatures, another Pittsburgher and owner of the Dynamo Sound Collective cassette label. Being back down in the basement, catching up with friends and eating Mike’s mothers amazing potato soup, I didn’t get to fully experience the Hunted Creatures set, though there seemed to be a healthy amount of noise and drone.

Nick Schillace had the final performance slot for Saturday, and his set didn’t disappoint. I’ve been a fan of Nick’s for a few years now, having shared several bills with him, his duo with Joel, and his western swing trio Lac La Belle. For those unfamiliar with Nick’s work, he is a multi-instrumentalist and guitar teacher residing in Detroit, has two fantastic solo albums to his name (2006’s Box Canyon and 2008’s Landscape and People) and he wrote his thesis on John Fahey. For his FV set, he decided to bring an old Gibson 12-string acoustic guitar and a 1920’s Gibson 6-string banjo, and he performed very well on each… sorry for the dark video, ’twas the best I could do!

Day 1 ended ahead of schedule, with everyone saying their “see you tomorrows” around 9:30pm.

Sunday

On the afternoon of the second day, my ride was late and I ended up missing Great Blue Heron and Margaret Cox.  I got to Morning Glory just in time to catch the end of an unscheduled duo performance by Joel and Nick, on acoustic guitar and banjo, respectively.  The pieces that I heard were patient and skeletal, with some improvisation and some exotic scales.  It was a nice surprise!

Joel Peterson and Nick Schillace

Next was Tusk Lord, the ever-evolving presentation of songs by Mike Kasunic.  This incarnation featured Mike on electric guitar and vocals, and Matt McDermott, lately of Pittsburgh’s Harangue, on vocals and assorted keyboards and synths.  They had a slow, dirgy pop sound, featuring Kasunic’s deep, almost deadpan vocals, reminiscent of early Smog or Hayden.  Melodically, some of it reminded me of a n0-fi version of P.G. Six.  A few of the synth combinations were harmonically very stirring when stacked against the sound of the guitar.  Tusk Lord has a new 7″ planned for Record Store Day, April 17.

After Tusk, Mike Tamburo made another appearance, this time with his new group, Kukeri.  They performed a long, meditative piece for harmonium, hammer dulcimer, 12-string guitar and twin tablas, and the combination was very effective, a promising first performance.  West Virginia’s Aaron Lennox took the stage next, playing a lengthy set of nylon-string guitar and keyboard duets with an old friend whose name escapes me.  They were only lightly rehearsed, which definitely came through in the loose performance.  Still, many of the guitar pieces were quite delicate and very pretty.

Of all the acts on the second day, none impressed me more than Chris Forsyth, from Philadelphia.  Chris is a member of several experimental folk combos, notably Peeesseye.  He has also lately accompanied Meg Baird, of Philly’s well known Espers. Chris turned in a fantastic, nuanced set of solo electric guitar songs… the first was a driving, rhythmic work played on a 12-string Rickenbacker, during which the implied down-beats were regularly shifting around, keeping the listener fascinated with its insistence… gosh, I hope that last sentence didn’t sound pretentious!   The remainder of his set was detuned Stratocaster played against in-tune loops, melodically very exploratory and texturally unique.  I really enjoyed Chris’ music, and had some great conversations with him later on in the night.

Dire Wolves

With the night winding down, it was up to sludge-jammers Dire Wolves to rouse everyone’s spirit, and their unique show did the trick : instead of playing in the main gallery where the rest of the festival had been taking place, the two-drummer, two-guitar group played in the basement, with Mike Tamburo videotaping the performance, which was projected live into the gallery.  It was a fun change of pace to experience their loud, noodly dirges from afar, and the hand-held camerawork made for some fun perspectives… the group also have a cassette available on the Dynamo Sound Collective label.  Dire Wolves were followed by Baltimore’s Enumclaw, who played a soothing set of ambient music on a combination of keyboard and effects processors.

Closing the night was Philadelphia’s Eric Carbonara.  The description on his website sums up his music quite well :

“… his playing draws on the rich musical styles from Andalusian Roma-Flamenco to Hindustani & North African folk to form a kind of exalted pidgin style of playing that covers a wide emotional terrain from meditative calm to restless unease.”

Eric Carbonara

Eric is all this and more, performing on both a standard flamenco guitar and a beautiful, hand-made upright chaturangui, a 22-string indian guitar.  I’ve seen several of Eric’s performances over the last few years, and his technique has progressed very quickly in that time.  This can probably be attributed to his recent studies in India with Debashish Bhattacharya, who also built and painted Eric’s chaturangui.  His recent electric album, Toward A Center Of Infinite Flux,  is a noisy, stretched out affair, and I would highly recommend it… but Eric’s FV performance drew more from his recently finished recording of his newer nylon-string compositions, entitled The Paradise Abyss. That record, still unreleased as of this writing, is in my opinion Eric’s best work to date.

Sunday night went quite a bit later than Saturday night, but it was well worth it.  Once again, Mike Tamburo brought us all together to celebrate the exploration of aural ideas and to expand our musical world-view, and I’d say that these goals were met with total success.  I think that the lesson everyone learned last weekend (and many already knew) is that mellow can still be mind-blowing, and hopefully the Fantastic Voyagers Festival will continue to come around, blowing minds for years to come.

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