Even as late as the eve of this year’s NAMM Show, it appeared as if the only can’t-miss event would be Yamaha’s 125th anniversary concert with Elton John, Sarah McLachlan, Michael McDonald and more on Friday night (January 25, 2013). But once more musicians started gathering in and around the Anaheim Convention Center it was clear that this year was going to be another banner batch of performances from top names in pop, rock, jazz and Americana.
Only a few hours after wrapping up Thursday with an impressive Tower of Power concert, it was time to arrive early on Friday to see what the day had in store. The first great set of the morning came via the Tora Bora Boys, mostly comprising musicians who are with San Francisco’s Saga Music. The band’s 25-minute set of rousing bluegrass was enhanced by 11-year-old guest singer and guitarist Isaac Moore.
Saga president Richard Keldsen led the band through several classics, notably the upbeat “Shady Grove” (with Paul Shelasky tearing it up on fiddle) and even faster “Salty Dog” (kicked off by banjo virtuoso Rick Shubb, of Shubb Capos). When Moore was brought up front (he had been playing guitar throughout the set) to sing on the sixth cut, “I Just Think I’ll Go Away,” he instantly impressed with emotive vocals revealing a depth beyond his years, then sealed the deal with a strong lead solo on his Blueridge acoustic guitar.
After that, I dashed to the Hilton Acoustic Stage for O.C.’s own Fallen Stars, an Americana outfit led by husband-and-wife duo Bobbo and Tracy Barnes. They attracted a capacity crowd to hear sterling originals like melodic “Massachusetts” (with harmonies evoking the magic of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris), ambitious rocker “Dam” and country-flavored “Part Time Cowboy,” as well as a loose but winning take on AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” to cap their 35-minute showcase.
Later, waiting for award-winning a cappella ensemble Take 6 to appear at the Shure booth, it dawned on me that all six members might not fit onto its relatively small stage. Instead, it was as if the large crowd were watching them in a small rehearsal space, which created palpable energy as the group performed its unique blend of jazz, gospel and R&B in astounding arrangements. The nonstop 15-minute turn included a powerful cover of “Stand by Me” that showcased Joey Kibble’s lead vocals and their own harmony-filled “Spread Love.”
Of course, the highlight of the weekend was my opportunity to attend the Yamaha concert featuring a big cast of legends on Friday night. Over the course of almost four hours, everyone from openers Earth, Wind & Fire to Sir Elton performed brief sets. While it was great to see John's energetic five-song set that completed the night, my favorite sets were actually from McLachlan, the aforementioned EW&F, newcomer Leogun's rocking (as in "hard rocking") blistering two songs and a lengthy jazz piece featuring Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin and some of their pals. You can read Ben Wener's full-length review of the show here on the Orange County Register site.
Saturday is always the busiest day at NAMM, with tens of thousands of conventioneers crowding into the main hall as well as the adjacent Hilton and Marriott hotels, which also host performances.
It was just after 8 a.m. when Ian Ethan Case took the stage to kick off a long day of music-making. Inside the Hilton’s Pacific Ballroom he served up a 20-minute set of his compositions, delivered on both acoustic double-neck guitar and kalimba (a small African percussion instrument often called a thumb piano).
Spotlighting material from his new album The Narrow Way, he admitted to having “this thing for weird instruments” before performing “The Ridge” entirely on kalimba. Plucking at the tiny metal tines and utilizing small holes on the instrument to further ornament the sound with rich vibrato, he concocted rich, involving soundscapes out of an instrument many western audiences view as alien. His finished on guitar, however, for “North by Northeast,” blending harmonics and hammering on the neck with top-flight fretwork.
Deering is one of the industry’s most celebrated banjo manufacturers and the San Diego company always attracts aces to perform at its booth. Mark Johnson (the father of “clawgrass” banjo) and Emory Lester (mandolin) were slated to perform as a duo but were quickly joined by several high-profile friends, including Uwe Kruger (guitar) and Joel Landsberg (bass) of the Kruger Brothers. Jamming in such a casual setting allowed fans to get up close with these picking heroes.
Caught up with singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet, who had stopped by Fano Guitars’ booth to check out the new GF6 guitar and GF4 bass models. He was so impressed, according to company head Dennis Fano, that he ordered one of each and now owns about a dozen Fano instruments. While checking out the various wares, chatting with fans and signing autographs, Sweet did a little jam with his lead guitarist Dennis Taylor, but they opted out of playing a structured set — the hall was simply too loud to get it right.
Among the many celebrated players I ran into on Saturday but missed seeing perform were guitarist Craig Chaquico, lead guitarist of Jefferson Starship, Vicki Peterson of the Bangles and Mike Collins, drummer of Throwback Suburbia. Also spotted but not there to perform were Walter Clevenger and members of his great local band the Dairy Kings, John Borack (of the Popdudes) and singer-songwriter James Grey.