Voltarol - related music

Thursday, 27 August 2009

You play rhythm and I’ll play lead…

Now that I’m playing as part of an acoustic guitar duo again I’ve been thinking about the form generally, and its influence on me. I suppose that like most of my guitar-playing peers, my first experience was having a friend who was also learning to play and sitting down with him to strum chords together, but the first recorded duets I heard were by Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson. They were very exciting for me because they featured acoustic instruments and the music was blues based. As a consequence I felt that – if I really worked at it – I might be able to play that stuff one day. Here’s an example – this is Lang and Johnson playing ‘Blue Room’, recorded around 1929.

The next duo recording I heard was a track from the famous Davy Graham EP – ‘3/4 AD’. This featured Graham in an eponymous duet with Alexis Korner. As far as I know neither player recorded much in the guitar duo format apart from this, but it was another eye-opener for me and first gave me a sense of the idea of musical conversations. There is no clip available but a look at the original sleeve notes by Alexis Korner does shed some light on the proceedings.

Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were both influenced by Davy Graham, both signed to Transatlantic Records and both emerged on the London scene at around the same time, so it was inevitable that they would end up recording together. Their most famous project was the group ‘Pentangle’, but before that they made a duo album entitled Bert and John that was influential in its own right and spawned many an acoustic guitar duo in and around the sixties folk circuit. Here’s ‘Lucky Thirteen’ from that album, which was recorded in 1965.

I listened to a lot of music over the next thirty years or so, including a lot of jazz guitar duos. I also had several acoustic guitar duos myself, notably a partnership with the late John McCartney (who was better known as a superb electric bass player), The Blue Five with Leigh Heggarty, and a previous collaboration with my current musical partner – Chris White, but I didn’t hear another notable recording of the format until my second visit to Brazil in 1996/97. I was lying on the floor of a jazz bar-come-CD shop in Sâo Paulo at about eleven o’clock one night (for reasons that are too complicated to go into now but involve a free bottle of Cachaça) when I first heard Notenstock and was enchanted by them. Strictly speaking they were a trio, as the two French guitarists – Michel Jules and Stéphane Sarlin - were accompanied by Brazilian percussionist Luiz Carlos de Paula, but the music would have worked perfectly well without the percussion so it fits the bill as far as I’m concerned!

I have never come across anyone else in this country who knows their work and I haven’t been able to find much information on line, but I do know that their first album – ‘A Coté du Soleil’ was recorded in 1992, and a second album - ‘Live in Vienne’ – featured bassist Abraham Laboriel as a guest and was recorded in 1993. I know that the group were still playing in the later nineties because my son and his then-wife saw them in a club in Sâo Paulo and got a signed copy of the second CD, although sadly the line up had changed due to the early death of Michel Jules. I’ve only been able to find one example of their work on line – a tune from the first album entitled ‘Libra Livre’. You can listen to it here.

My next example is a couple of Brazilian guitarists who go under the name of Duofel. They have been playing together for over twenty five years and their musical range is as astonishing as some of their techniques. I have to thank my ex-daughter-in-law for bringing them to my attention. If you are interested in acoustic music that really explores new territory then I would urge you to go out and find their recordings. As an incentive, here’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ as you’ve probably never heard them before…

There are many other guitar duos out there that I haven’t mentioned, but the rest of my favourites are not exclusively acoustic – and that was the brief I set myself for this particular posting. I enjoy the work of Pete Oxley and Lusi D' Agostino for example, but they also play electric guitar. In fact, I can feel another posting coming on, dedicated to all the jazz guitar duos. Right. I’m off to trawl through my CDs again.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Voltarol rides again!

Thanks to Jules for the picture

After an arthritis driven lay-off I have just played my guitar in public for the first time in three years. Many would say that my absence from public performance was no great loss but for me, my return to playing was quite a significant moment. I have had arthritis in my hands for about nine years now, and for the last five or six of them there has been an increasing tendency for them to lock up at unlikely moments. At first this would only happen after quite a few hours of continuous playing but then it began to happen more frequently. Eventually the inevitable happened and they locked up in mid chord change, mid gig.

Despite having a total involvement with music from quite an early age (see the various autobiographical postings of this blog) I have never had great manual dexterity. Most of my more dexterous friends acquired their initial guitar playing skills quite rapidly and I was left way behind, but – as with the tortoise and the hare – my consistent plodding eventually got me to a standard that I was not ashamed of and I went on to play with some damn good musicians. So when the inevitable happened and I could no longer rely on my hands, I took the decision to stop playing guitar and switched to my other discipline, percussion.

The guitar, which had been a more or less constant part of my life for the last 48 years, was now something I didn’t even want to look at. Instead of being kept on a stand in my living room where I could pick it up whenever the fancy took me – which had been about once every half hour – it was returned permanently to its case and stashed under the bed. For the next two years I continued to convince myself that – since I could no longer play to the standard that I had been capable of, there was no point in playing at all. Then one day I just said ‘sod it’ and got the guitar out again.

At first I struggled. My fingers had lost their calluses as well as their flexibility, but I would play for ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch and within a couple of months I was playing for anything up to an hour at a time. I realised how much I had missed it and also that, provided that I didn’t attempt to play fast jazz changes any more, my hands were no longer locking up. Eventually I felt ready to play with someone else again and gave an old mate a call. He and I had played guitar duets together on and off over the last twenty odd years, and we’d also been in bands together during that time. We got together one evening for a session and were soon playing once a week and assembling a repertoire.

Last Wednesday we toddled along to a local pub that was running an acoustic evening and we played four numbers to a mildly receptive crowd. I made a few mistakes and we didn’t set the world on fire, but ultimately it was far more important to me than anything I’ve done in a long time and I realised that I had just leapt over a major psychological barrier and landed safely. I’m already looking forward to the next gig and am playing with a lot more freedom and originality than I have for a long time. The only downside is that someone videoed the performance and, watching the footage, I realise how much face pulling I do when I’m playing…