Thomas and his friends

by christopherjamespoet

To Haverhill Arts Centre to see Austrian acoustic guitar maestro Thomas Leeb. He plays in the percussive melodic style probably made most famous by Newton Faulkner, spending just as much time ill treating his guitar as playing it. His insistent, rhythmic tapping, scraping and brushing against the wooden body (his long suffering guitar also takes a bow at the end) has the effect of providing a constant tribal beat to his beguiling tunes.

This is the last night of the tour and afterwards he heads straight to Heathrow to fly home to California, but he’s in no hurry and no one is short changed. He is great fun throughout, with a gentle, off-beat sense of humour. His most well known tunes are dispensed early, including the genre defining Desert Pirate, the beautiful, harmonic YouTube smash, Akaskero and his definitive instrumental version of No Woman No Cry, which is the perfect excuse for some of his amiable shuffling about the stage in the style of the old reggae masters.

He combines a life touring the world with one of domesticity, reporting that he has now finished building his own home. He recalls two days lying on his side cleaning the gap between the walls and the floor, the tedium of which resulted in new song ‘Sideways,’ which with its pretty melody housed in a tight rhythmic structure, is anything but tedious.

He admits he is treating us as a test bed for new material, which gives an edge to the night. New song ‘Fishbowl’ is an attempt to capture the skewed world view you have when constantly travelling through different time zones. ‘I don’t care if you don’t like the title,’ he laughs when introducing the tune, ‘I do.’

His original material is consistently strong and it’s clear he is not content merely to be an interpreter. However his covers are equally arresting. A delirious delight is his arrangement of Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ full of witty runs and fills, and frantic dashes up and down the fretboard. It’s made all the more brilliant by the odd circumstances of its creation – at an airport after the ‘strangely liberating perfect storm’ of losing his coat, wallet, green card and passport in one foul swoop. It says everything about the man that this was his response to the disaster.   

He claims to be a one trick pony – envying other guitarists who can play in different styles, but it’s hard to see what he means; across the night we get Austrian and Celtic folk, acoustic speed metal and even funk, in the gloriously named ‘Grooveyard.’ His eclecticism and versatility are both key to his appeal.

A highlight among many, is his tender rendition of some Bach (he stuck a picture on Facebook as a nod to Arnie, his fellow Austrian – ‘I’ll be Bach!). The Bach piece glistens with harmonics and shows perhaps he has come full circle. He returns shortly, and no doubt in some glory, to the conservatoire in Austria where he was rejected twenty years ago.  

He says that it’s wonderful to return to Haverhill (although no doubt he says similar thing elsewhere) but we have a special claim to be a spiritual home from home. He plays two songs composed by the late Eric Roche, a resident of the town and a great friend of Thomas’ – the mind boggling Perc-U-Lator and a tender tune that I lost the name of halfway through my second beer. Composed by Eric for the birth of his son, Thomas does it full justice however, his thumb sounding a tender heartbeat throughout.        

I’ve seen him play here before but it was a privilege once again to see how he can transform a space with his questing musical spirit and the simple power of song.

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