While I don’t get out on the road nearly as often as I’d like, it seems that for the last few years, I’ve been able to tour with some regularity… and though I normally relish these trips as an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts and tunes on the sometimes long drives between gigs, my last three outings have been cooperative tours with other musicians, which is really the more interesting way to go. This time out, I had the good fortune to spend a week with Chuck Johnson, in my opinion one of the coolest players recording today. Chuck had secured a small arts grant and was hitting the road to promote A Struggle, Not A Thought, his debut solo LP on the Strange Attractors Audio House label. I’ve been following Chuck’s music ever since his appearance last year on the amazing Beyond Berkeley Guitar compilation, and was really excited to spend some quality time with the man, exploring each others perspectives on our tool of choice, the steel-strung acoustic guitar. Throw in our mutual friend Trevor Healy, not only a talented luthier but a fantastic fingerpicker in his own right, and we had ourselves a week-long guitar bro-down of epic proportions! Having interviewed both men for the release of BBG, I knew that they would be thoughtful and intelligent travelling partners, and alas the short time we spent playing shows together passed far too quickly.
For me, this particular trip started with a whimper: having played a house party the night before and getting to bed in the 3am area, I was not able to rise in time to catch my 7am Megabus from Pittsburgh to New York City, where I was supposed to meet up with Chuck and Trevor to start my leg of the tour. I wasn’t actually on the bill in NYC, but was planning to concentrate on getting photos and videos for this here blog, and I was looking forward to visiting the Zebulon venue for the first time. As it was, it gave me an extra day to pack properly and to practice, which was welcome… but it also meant that I’d have to figure out how I planned to get from Pittsburgh to Cambridge the next day for our gig at Zuzu. I decided to rent the tiniest car that Budget offered (and my budget afforded), which turned out to be a Chevy Aveo. Tiny it was, for my dreadnought case didn’t even fit in the trunk! It mattered little, though, since I’d be leaving the car in Boston and travelling in Chuck’s rental the rest of the trip. I spent that grey, rainy Monday traversing Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and finally gunning it across the Mass Pike to get to the gig with a little time to spare.
Once at the bar, drinks and mediterranean tapas were enjoyed, and Trevor proudly showed off the two guitars he was travelling with, both built by his own hand. The first was his new personal instrument, a 12-string with beautiful Myrtlewood back and sides, Alaskan Yellow Cedar top and a sort of modified OM body shape. I spend hardly any time playing 12-string guitars, and thus didn’t really have the touch to do it justice, so I mostly marveled at its superb craftsmanship and Trevor’s signature subtle aesthetics… I knew that I’d be hearing both Trevor and Chuck coaxing beautiful sounds out of the guitar all week! Trevor completed construction of the 12-string literally a day or two before leaving for tour, and the guitar had only a thin layer of finish to protect it for the week.
The other guitar in Trevor’s arsenal was his first parlor guitar build, the Model 1. I’d been following the build process on the Model 1 since the spring, and it was a real treat to see it in person. The guitar looked fantastic under finish, and Trevor’s cosmetic choices on the instrument were perfectly understated: a simple Rosewood rosette (and killer looking soundhole surround), Rosewood binding, the distinctive vertical Healy logo on the headstock… and with the tried-and-true combination of Adirondack Spruce top over East Indian Rosewood back and sides, I always knew this guitar would sound as good as it looked. I was not disappointed.
I settled back for the opening act, a dream-pop outfit called Better Pills. I remember little about their set, apart from the bassist/vocalist having a pretty mean sounding Rickenbacker. They had their share of tuning issues, which I sympathise with… Zuzu is a bar/restaurant first and a music venue second, and the fact that there is no cover charge means that you have to contend with all manner of rowdies along with the people that actually come to hear you play. By the time Chuck took the “stage”, the din of the crowd was getting very loud indeed, and I was a little worried about his choice to go with a mic-only approach to amplifying his guitars. He did manage to quiet the place somewhat with his mix of 6 and 12-string tunes, playing several tracks from his LP as well as the traditional blues “Vestapol” and a song by John Fahey.
When it was time for my set, I tried to get situated quickly. Chuck offered his mic, but with the crowd getting ever louder and tipsier, I reckoned I ought to plug directly into the sound system to cut through the noise. For the sake of variety, I left my trusty Collings OM2 at home for this trip, and instead was playing a Sitka/Mahogany Collings D1 dread with a dual source pickup, which offered me some control over the stage sound of the guitar. I’d be lying if I said that I remembered everything I played that night, but I opened with part of Duck Baker’s arrangement of the traditional Irish aire “The South Wind”, which I smashed together with my own “Tanning” (both songs are in the same tuning, double D down). I also recall tuning to DADGAD to play my theme song “Work & Worry” and Pierre Bensusan’s “The Return From Fingal”. I knew that I wanted to pay tribute to my recently departed hero Bert Jansch, so I played “Strollin’ Down The Highway” and a high-energy version of “Angi”, much closer in sound to Bert’s rendition than to Davy Graham’s original recording. I may have ended it there, I’m not sure. The night ended with a cool, brooding set from my friend Ryan Lee Crosby and a few of his usual sidemen.
After the Cambridge gig, we were invited to stay with our friend Burton LeGeyt, who rents a very cool house on a quiet street in Brookline Village. Like Trevor, Burton is an extremely talented young luthier, and on Tuesday morning we were treated to a thorough tour of his workshop. We were all blown away by how Burton has maximized the space in his shop, and I couldn’t wait to try one of his gorgeous guitars. LeGeyt acoustics are visually stunning, inspired by classical design and sacred geometry. Burton has spent much of the last year studying and restoring vintage tooling and machinery, and he aspires to eventually be able to fabricate every last piece of the instrument himself, from the tuning machines to the frets. I think we all found Burton’s independent spirit and attention to detail very inspiring, and he certainly had our eyes popping with his stash of amazing wood. Chuck and I got a lot of pictures from his shop, and hopefully I’ll be able to turn those into a separate post with an interview very soon.
Still not ready to get off of the subject of acoustic guitars, we decided to head up to Lexington to visit The Music Emporium, one of the finest acoustic shops in the country. Trevor got some professional perspective on his instruments from a few of the shop keepers, and Chuck and I ran around playing all manner of fancy-ass guitars. Chuck was most interested in some 00 style guitars by John Walker, while I occupied myself with a couple Froggy Bottoms and Santa Cruz OMs. Looking back, I wish I had asked to try a Franklin Euphonon jumbo that was hanging somewhat out of reach… maybe next time. As the day wore on, we figured we should be on our way to Easthampton MA for that night’s show at Healy Guitars, and after a quick slice of pizza we were on our way.
I couldn’t wait to see how Trevor’s shop had developed since he moved east from the bay area in the spring. As I’d expected it was looking great, and after just a few months in Easthampton Trevor found himself quite in demand as both a luthier and an instrument repairman. That night’s show was the first such event at Trevor’s shop, and it was a great time. Many of the artists and craftspeople that work in the Eastworks complex (the repurposed mill where Healy Guitars is located) came out for the show. After a great set by Tongue Oven, also known as Dan McLeod, I got my chance to play. My set wasn’t all that different from the night before, though I played “Dallas Rag”, the only rag in my bag (thanks for the saying, Milo) and played “One For Jo” as the night’s Bert Jansch tribute. Trevor followed me, and after knowing him for almost a year and a half, it was wonderful to finally get to see him play. Trevor has a confident, patient style, and I love his compositional sense. I got a couple of videos, an untitled improv and a version of “Wrapped In Water”, which was Trevor’s contribution to the Beyond Berkeley Guitar CD.
Chuck closed out the night with another great set, and I was starting to pick my favorite tunes… “Caldera Wires”, “Vestapol” and “Down In Flames Or Not At All” became the songs that I hoped to hear night after night. We crashed at Trevor’s that night, and spent a bunch more time in his shop the next day. Chuck wanted to practice, but Trevor and I had some important business to attend to: back in July, I had put down a deposit on my first (and probably not last) custom Healy build, and now that the guitar was in process, it was time to decide on some of the appointments.
The specs? Well, it’s going to be an interesting instrument to say the least: small jumbo (16″ lower bout), short scale (25″), Adirondack top, Cuban Mahogany back and sides, Ebony fretboard, binding and headstock overlay, vertical Healy logo with a custom flourish. Trevor had been working away at two different Adi tops, and we decided to go with the more visually interesting (and stiffer) of the two (the one Trevor is holding in the above picture). The sound that we’re going for is a slightly boomy bass but with minimal overtones… tight and snappy. After spending even more time with several of Trevor’s sweet guitars on the tour, I was completely confident that we were going to get there.
That night’s show was in Hudson NY, at the wonderful Spotty Dog. I played this unique bookstore/bar in February with Matt Goulet, Eric Carbonara and Alexander Turnquist, and it was a great time. This gig was just as good, a slightly smaller crowd but with really nice sound and lighting. Sadly, Alex didn’t play the show, though we got to hear a few of his new tracks, both live and on recording, at his apartment that night. Chuck and I had some time to kill the next morning, so he caught up on computer work at a coffee shop while I walked around in Hudson. Before long we were on our way to Philadelphia for a show at The Highwire Gallery with Eric Carbonara and Jesse Sparhawk. The drive to Philly was quick and uneventful, and Chuck and I walked around for a spell, looking for a place to eat. We ended up having some pretty good Mexican food, and made it to the gallery in plenty of time to set up. We ended up with a small crowd that night, but as it happened, almost everyone in the house was a guitarist or songwriter of note. I was psyched that my friend Chris Niels was in town, always good to see another Pittsburgh face out on the road! I’m pretty sure I opened with “Spotted Eye”, a DADGAD tune from the Pairdown Holykyle LP, and show organizer Steve Tobin caught a bunch of videos that night… me playing “Work & Worry” and “No Occupation”, as well as great tracks from Chuck and the Carbonara/Sparhawk duo.
Eric Carbonara and Jesse Sparhawk have such an interesting dynamic, both personally and musically… these former roommates play some of the most patient, detailed and beautiful music out there, yet they’re constantly taking the piss out of each other! Their stage banter is beyond entertaining to watch! I picked up their Sixty Strings LP earlier this year, and I liked it well enough, but the music that these two are making now is very exciting, as evidenced in the video. I’m very excited to hear their next collection of recordings, but hopefully we’ll play a few more shows twixt now and then.
The next night was a return to Pittsburgh, with the full-on two man (workandworry.com contributor David Leicht and myself) Pairdown lineup, Chuck, local jazz-rock combo Host Skull and guitarist Mike Fekete, in for the night from Mentor, Ohio. I was putting on the show at The Mr. Roboto Project, an all-ages DIY space just a couple blocks from my house, and it was literally going to be one of the first shows to occur in this newly renovated space… at least I thought that it was newly renovated, but as it happened, the space was right in the middle of renovations, and it was still quite rough around the edges. We made the best of it, and after a while, an intimate crowd of friends had shown up. It’s always a little bit of a bummer, after a solid group of out of town shows, to come back to indifference at your home-base.. not that I didn’t appreciate the friends that did make it out. From a musical standpoint, it was a great night. Mike Fekete not only played brilliantly but had a hilarious, easy stage manner, which kept a smile on everyone’s face. Host Skull ripped through some not-too-loose, not-too-tight jazz workouts, making fans of the whole room in the process. Chuck turned in another spot-on set, and Pairdown finished off the evening with a loose set plagued by cold hands and tuning troubles. Chuck, Mike, Dave and I went back to my place and hung out for a bit, and pretty soon it was time to call it a night.
The following day I had the pleasure of introducing Chuck to a few Pittsburgh treasures, namely the incomparable Jerry’s Records and my hometown guitar shop, Acoustic Music Works. I think Chuck was a little overwhelmed by the thousands and thousands of LPs crammed into every corner of Jerry’s, but he was able to find a few keepers, and I picked up an old LP by the Abreu Brothers. We had a great visit with Steve Miklas at Acoustic Music Works, and I made sure that Chuck had a great guitar in his hands at all times. He was particularly taken by a ’90s Lowden, recently in on consignment. Steve also pulled out an absolute gem of a Huss & Dalton, which sounded fantastic when Chuck played it.
And so ended our trip together, and my touring for 2011. I want to extend a big thanks to everyone who came out to the shows, helped us get organized, and put us up. I especially want to thank Chuck and Trevor for the great memories. Can’t wait to do it again!