Wednesday, January 19, 2011

2011 NAMM Show celebrates music and those who play it

Photograph on left: Fingerstyle guitarist Trace Bundy plays his guitar at the Gator Cases, Inc. booth on Jan. 15, 2011.

Large photo on top of page: Singer-songwriter-guitarist Billy White Acre performs his original song "The Apple" on Jan. 15, 2011, featuring the new Yamaha GL1 Guitarlele ("half guitar, half ukulele"). A unique mini 6-string nylon guitar that is sized like a baritone ukulele, the instrument is played like a standard tune guitar.

In case you missed my series of reports on the Soundcheck blog of The Orange County Register's Web site, here is a recap of some of my highlights from The NAMM Show last weekend.

Although I have interviewed many high-profile legends in the music industry over the years, it has usually been a phone interview and set up weeks in advance. Such was not the case leading up to my interview with Jackson Browne. I received an email on Wednesday, Jan. 12 asking if I was interested in interviewing him in the morning on Thursday, Jan. 13. I'm no fool and jumped at the chance.

The arrival of Browne on Thursday has been one of countless unscheduled surprises at this year’s NAMM Show. The Hall of Famer, turned up in the Gibson Guitar suite on the third floor of the Anaheim Convention Center to celebrate the unveiling of his own signature guitar from the manufacturer.

Browne, who spent his formative teenage years in Orange County and attended Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, was gracious enough to sit down for a brief chat before his hour-long noontime press conference. Not only is this the first guitar to bear his name, he told me, but it took five years of collaboration — with master luthiers Ren Ferguson and Robi Johns at the company’s research and development plant in Montana — to get everything right.

The inspiration for the Browne guitar was Gibson’s ’30s-era Roy Smeck model, several of which Browne owns and uses on stage and in the studio. He loves the old guitars for their sweet acoustic sound, wrapped up in a big tone.

“It’s both a triumph of guitar-making and fitting this pickup,” he explained, noting his 2011 model comes factory installed with the Trance Audio Amulet, a true-stereo acoustic pickup. (Purists can also get his model without it.)

“There is a lot of latitude,” he added, “and people have grown up playing a completely different kind of acoustic guitar, and a very different kind of pickup. I think in a way it’s like coming home. This sound is very natural and actually can be made very loud. The last record I made, I used this pick-up and a really old Gibson guitar, and you could play the guitar hard or soft. You could always hear it even with drums and bass.”

You can see Browne and his collection of vintage guitars, along with his new model, when he performs March 5 at at the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula and March 8 at the Long Beach Terrace Theatre.

“To get a company like Gibson — they have already made my favorite guitars years ago — to take up the task of making a whole new run of them and make them available for a new generation of players, that’s exciting,” he says of the Jackson Browne Signature Model A, which retails for about $7,700. (Those without the custom-made pickup go for $5,700.)

My conversation with Browne was brief and mostly focused on the new guitar, but I did get to ask him about any local memories.

“Orange County’s always fun for me,” he said of his visits here now. “I just drove down to Newport Beach (from his home in Los Angeles); we had a family gathering with both my sons (one was visiting from Australia). But Orange County has changed so rapidly, (though) some things are the same — Disneyland is the same.

“The beach is great. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I first learned to drive; it was important to drive because it was my way out of Orange County and to get to Hollywood.”

But Browne also noted that the burgeoning O.C. music scene of the late ’60s allowed him a training ground to develop his craft: “I played the Bear (the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach), I played the Paradox (in Tustin) … the Four Muses in San Clemente is where I started playing.”

Here are some other highlights of the performances and artist meet-and-greets at the NAMM Show.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, songwriter and recent American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick and Def Leppard lead guitarist Phil Collen were among those who took part in opening ceremonies for the 109th annual NAMM Show on Wednesday, Jan. 12.

Collen, a longtime resident of South Orange County, is one of many well-known musicians particpating in the “Guitar World Lick of the Day,” which provides instruction via those same Apple products (seemingly everyone at NAMM uses them). He showed off the product — and his own impressive skills — with a solo performance of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”

Perhaps the most surprising performance of the day almost didn’t happen.

Several people asked Huckabee if he would play some bass, in addition to his speech on behalf of NAMM’s efforts to put a musical instrument into the hands of every child in America (a program called I Wanna Play!). After getting some technical details worked out and finding a bass guitar the governor could use (he was first handed a five-string bass but joked that he’s “old school” and required a four-string axe), Huckabee joined forces with Dick Boak (from Martin Guitar) and Collen for an extended blues jam.

The first official day of the annual NAMM Show (Thursday, Jan. 13) delivered a little something for everyone, no matter what your musical taste. Far-flung performances focused on jazz, modern rock, folk and classic California rock (courtesy of Jackson Browne), while surf music and Americana were also on the menu over the course of the 12 hours I spent at the Anaheim Convention Center on Thursday.

For jazz fans, there was an early-morning performance from legendary guitarist Lee Ritenour. For lovers of instrumental guitar, his performance of the beautiful “Waters Edge” (from his Smoke ‘n’ Mirrors album) offered a great chance to showcase his playing as well as a line of new acoustic guitars being unveiled by Yamaha music.

But it proved to be only the first of many fine performances I caught from a number of acclaimed players here. Finger-style guitarist Don Alder, for instance, showcased his talents on cuts like “DRDR” and “The Wall,” his fiery strumming and tapping drawing a number of onlookers to a press conference about a new campaign focusing on more than 50 new guitars and basses being unveiled at this, the world’s largest music trade show.

In another hour of original songs, Huntington Beach singer-songwriter James Grey pleased with well-written tunes that came to vivid life with his intimate delivery. Along with the Beatles-esque “Wonderful Day” to the inventive “Monsters,” other standouts in his set included “Safety Net” and “Sea Breeze.”

Doyle Dykes, on the other hand, is a master who can flat-out play the guitar. Considered by many to be one of the world’s finest bluegrass-country-Americana virtuosos alive, his hour-long appearance on the Taylor Guitars stage did much to enhance that reputation.

Opening with a beautiful arrangement of “How Great Thou Art,” his wide-ranging set went on to include other material centered on his country and spiritual roots, as well as fun choices (the theme from the old Batman series from the ’60s) and a medley of tunes in the key of A (the “Alpha” key), with David Pack of Ambrosia fame joining in for the Doors‘ “Break on Through,” the Champs’ “Tequila” and Ray Charles‘ “Hit the Road, Jack.” Other highlights included a reworked version of Eric Clapton‘s “Lay Down Sally,” which allowed both Pack and Dykes to trade licks, and a beautiful set-ending “Amazing Grace,” with Dykes’ guitar gracefully dancing around his daughter Haley’s expressive soprano.

Although Alex Skolnick is known for his chops as a member of Testament, his Alex Skolnick Trio performed a breathtaking 60-minute set of instrumental jazz on Thursday. Skolnick is an amazing guitarist, shredding across the fretboard regardless which style he tackles. A large crowd packed the Marriott Center Stage and cheered this show as loudly as any I heard throughout the day.

One of the weakest performances I caught, however, was by a surf band dubbed Duo-Tones+2. Although the group covered a bunch of classics from the likes of Dick Dale, the Ventures and other ’60s mainstays, its set was too loose and lost luster as it went along.

On the other hand, what’s not to love about the legendary Otis Taylor? Having first encountered him during a jaw-dropping performance at the Doheny Blues Fest in 2010, Taylor here proved that lightning can indeed strike twice thanks to an incredible hour-long set at the Anaheim Marriott on Thursday night.

Backed by one of the hardest-hitting blues bands in the business — with his oldest daughter Cassie Taylor on bass and backing vocals, along with fiddle player Anne Harris, lead guitarist Jon Paul Johnson and drummer Larry Thompson — Taylor was striking on banjo, acoustic guitar and (finally) a Fender Telecaster as his set grew in intensity by the minute. By the time he got to “Rain So Hard” near the end of an 11-song turn, many in the crowd were swaying, totally caught up in Boulder resident’s hypnotic, haunting music.

If, in some mythical universe, the Doors and Led Zeppelin could have formed a band with Robert Johnson and B.B. King, the results might have sounded a bit like what Otis Taylor does now.

It’s no surprise that technology continues to be such a big part of NAMM. In the past two decades I’ve seen seemingly never-ending advances in how instruments are made and the development of entirely new tools help both legends and newcomers sound better and simply do more stuff.

Such proved to be the case once more when my journey through the world’s largest music trade show began Friday, Jan. 14. A year after the launch of the Beamz Player, I was curious to see how the interactive music system was coming along. A musical instrument with legs, it has the potential for broad appeal — it’s fun and anybody can play it.

Guitar hero Craig Chaquico introduced the device during a showcase at last year’s NAMM, entertaining a small crowd as he ran his hands through the device’s beam of light, enhancing pre-recorded tracks. This year, however, he was able to artfully play his Carvin guitar while also utilizing the Beamz Player, clearly expanding his approach on some of his best-known contemporary jazz and new-age material.

Chaquico is one of those rare members of a classic rock band who has been able to redefine himself over the years. He got his start, while still in his teens back in 1974, by accepting an invitation to join Jefferson Starship. Having played guitar with the band for more than a decade (and written some of its best songs, including “Find Your Way Back”), he embarked on a career in modern jazz.

At NAMM 2011, he performed several of his instrumental pieces, spotlighting his fluid six-string style while simultaneously using his fingers and hands to provide Native American flute on “Indian Spring” and other supportive sounds on “Cafe Carnivale” and “Gathering of the Tribes.” Visit Chaquico’s site for more information on his relationship with Beamz.

Not everything at NAMM is about sprinting into the future. A long performance by Kim Wilson (of Fabulous Thunderbirds fame) was an old-school excuse for fans of the blues to hear him demonstrate the wide variety of sounds from Hohner harmonicas. Wilson is undoubtedly one of the genre’s best (and best-known) harp masters, something he proved repeatedly during an extended set, with lone accompaniment from bassist Larry Taylor. His sales pitch was brief, too: “Hohner is the harmonica of choice — that’s all I got to tell you.”

Like Chaquico, Laurence Juber has been able to successfully define himself as someone far larger than his classic rock roots. Decades after his start as the last lead guitarist for Wings in the late ’70s, he is now recognized as one of the world’s best fingerstyle guitarists. Performing a dozen or so pieces on his Martin guitar at the Mogami Cables Company booth Friday afternoon, his sales pitch was also pithy: “Life is too short for using bad cables.”

Highlights of his set included beautiful arrangements of the Beatles‘ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Blackbird” as well as a gorgeous rendering of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Little Wing.”

Not every player is a virtuoso, however — so it was nice to see several young songwriters featured on the small stage at the Martin Guitars booth. Jason Charles Miller (lead singer of the hard-rocking band Godhead) showcased his acoustic Americana solo project in a strong 30-minute set. Aided by guitarist Brett Boyett and fiddler Aubrey Richmond, Miller showed he can sing powerfully and with plenty of feeling outside of a big rock sound. His highlights included “Long Long Gone” and the Southern rock of “Raise a Little Hell with an Angel.”

Another young promising singer-songwriter followed Miller’s set on the same stage, as Mia Sable (accompanied by guitarist Ainjel Emme) served up almost a dozen originals. Confessional material such as “Somebody Tell Me” and “When It’s All Been Done” showcased both her pleasing soprano and ability to craft winning songs.

Taylor Guitars has a burgeoning history of presenting full-scale performances on its first-class stage, positioned inside a large space on the second floor of the Anaheim Convention Center, and capping its Friday lineup was an hour-long concert by Night Ranger, back in O.C. only four months after appearing at Jack’s 5th Show at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine. The good news for fans who landed a spot inside the packed space was that singer-bassist Jack Blades and the rest of the outfit were out to have a good time and rock out.

There is something about performing at NAMM — perhaps having so many notables on hand watching — that brings out the best of every artist. I saw several members of Night Ranger enjoying Otis Taylor’s incredible set on Thursday, for instance, with Blades coming up to talk with Taylor after his set.

Night Ranger has improved as a band over the years, and this NAMM showcase marked one of the most rocking sets I’ve witnessed at the trade show. Big hits were delivered with unbridled power, especially “(You Can Still) Rock in America” and “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” complete with dueling lead solos from guitarists Brad Gillis and Joel Hoekstra. Young and old sang along as the band performed “Sister Christian,” and metal fans went nuts when the quintet closed with a thunderous version of AC/DC‘s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”

Having spent the bulk of this NAMM Show on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday immersed in seeing noted artists — Jackson Browne, Plain White T’s, Night Ranger, Lee Ritenour, Dave Koz, etc. — I decided to use what few available hours I could spend at the show on Saturday to check out some unsung heroes, young artists just waiting for a much-deserved big break. Catching that kind of talent requires only a simple walk through the massive convention with your ears tuned.

I was lucky enough to find myself at the Gator Cases booth just after instrumental guitarist Trace Bundy started. Aptly dubbed the Acoustic Ninja by fans, the fingerstyle guitarist (above) — worthy of comparison to genre heroes like Doug Smith, Don Alder and Laurence Juber — delivered a masterful performance of Pachelbel’s Canon, working the neck of his guitar with both hands at first, hammering the strings while adding harmonics to his version of the celebrated baroque piece. Eventually he used the full guitar, expressing the beauty of the work with a complete range of his instrument.

Bundy is unsigned, yet he has sold 60,000 or so physical CDs via his own label Honest Ninja Music. More impressive: views of his performances on YouTube (like his on-the-spot looped handling of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” below) have racked up in excess of 12 million views. No wonder he has recently shared the stage with the likes of Chris Hillman (the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers), Neko Case and David Wilcox. Bundy returns to Southern California next month to play Feb. 19 at Genghis Cohen in Los Angeles.

Many of NAMM’s most intimate showcases were found on the two large stages in the lobby of the Marriott, adjacent to the Anaheim Convention Center. But a small performance area inside the nearby Starbucks hosted morning and early-afternoon acoustic performances as well, including one featuring singer-songwriter-guitar virtuoso Billy White Acre, who turned in a dazzling set of both instrumental pieces (“Drive” was especially good) and intelligent songs.

Performing on his new A-Series Yamaha guitar and a GL 1 Guitarlele (a nylon six-string guitar shaped like a baritone ukulele, one of many acoustic instruments that debuted at NAMM this year), Acre’s material benefited not only from strong fretwork but a vocal delivery dynamic enough to convey quiet beginnings and dramatic finishes (as on “Just a Dream” and “The Apple”).

One of my favorites that really showed off his chops was the Celtic-styled “Sir Gavin Gets Down”; like fellow Canada native Bruce Cockburn, Acre is a master guitarist whose talents on the instrument enhance his songs, making them even better. His new EP, The Apple, is $4.95 on iTunes.

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