christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Eric Roche

With These Hands – A Tribute to Eric Roche, Haverhill Arts Centre, 13 November 2015

A spotlight on a solitary acoustic guitar set the tone for a moving tribute to the life and music of fingerstyle guitar legend, Eric Roche. Ten years on from his untimely death, the great and the good of the acoustic guitar world assembled to pay their respects. With his family among the crowd in a packed Haverhill Arts Centre, it was set to be an emotionally charged evening.

Eric

Any suggestion that this would be a sedate affair however, was banished immediately as the show began with an explosion rendition of Roundabout from the man himself up on the big screen. With his acrobatic percussion techniques and distinctive sway, it was a reminder of the extraordinary physicality of Eric’s talent and stage presence.

Nick Keeble, resplendent in a t-shirt showing six guitars, introduced the proceedings in fine style, before Stuart Ryan opened the batting. His flowing melodic lines evoked a quiet pastoral beauty, and brought an elegiac tone to the hushed Victorian building, while also showcasing the venue’s fantastic sound. The gritty attack of his rendition of All Along the Watchtower showed that he wasn’t all about lyrical ballads.

Ravi was next up, barefoot and in beanie hat, wielding both a guitar and a kora (an African harp that resembles a sitar, played upright). His rendition of We Are, a deeply spiritual song about the links between generations was spell-biding, his rich voice occupying a space somewhere between Stephen Stills and James Taylor.

Guitar maker Nick Benjamin made an excellent unscripted speech about Eric, strolling about the stage, quite unable to resist the temptation to pick up Eric’s guitar. You got the sense that he remembered not only the hours making it, but the extraordinary transformation it underwent once in Eric’s hands. He replaced it with great care back in the spot light.

Another video of Eric’s great friend and fellow acoustic guitar innovator, Thomas Leeb was greeted with warm applause, which Thomas may well have been able to hear all the way from America, where he was unavoidably engaged.

Clive Carroll delivered a master-class with his strident, precise playing, the notes ringing high up into the rafters. He is a tremendously nice chat to boot and the audience loved his smiles and mugging while also enjoying his fiendishly difficult waltzes. Clive told us that he had spent every morning that week learning one of Eric’s pieces, especially for the show, only to discover that Higher Ground was in fact written by Stevie Wonder. The funky turbulence he generated from the six strings belied the short practice time.

David Mead gave a funny, charming and self deprecating performance, making a brilliant connection with the audience, who appreciated his own accomplished playing as much as his stories about Eric. David shared how Eric was often ‘relaxed’ about delivering his copy for the guitar magazine David edits. We learned how, on one deadline day, in a world before email, it was handed over ‘like a wad of used bank notes in a jiffy bag in a pub car park.’

Martyn Taylor was simply sublime, his effortless jazz lines lulling the crowd into a reverie. His reading of another majestic Stevie Wonder composition, If It’s Magic, prompted Nick Keeble to wonder whether in fact he had inadvertently organised a Stevie Wonder tribute night instead.

Taylor was also responsible for the anecdote of the night, remembering a famous mishap when he and Eric were recording up in the islands of Scotland. He recalled the intense pressure Eric put himself under while making the album. Suggesting they take a break for a drink, they caught a ferry to the pub. On the return journey however, they were so engrossed in discussing the music, they ended up back where they started, sheepishly having to ask the captain if he wouldn’t mind making one last crossing.

The young, bearded and ridiculously talented Declan Zapala provided a late highlight with his version of Angel, dedicated to Eric’s sister before essaying his own astonishing Philomena, dedicated to his own mum. He spoke movingly of the influence Eric had on his style and it was inspiring to see Eric’s legacy passed so impressively onto the next generation. The stretches Declan made with his hands to reach the notes made them look like spiders doing Pilates.

An all star version of With These Hands, one of Eric most beautiful compositions, led by Stuart Ryan, providing a fitting coda to the evening. The other guitarists crowded endearingly around their sheet music in an effort to keep up. A final song from Ravi, Time Capsule, finally ended the night on an optimistic note, with the image of Eric watching over us.

And if he was watching, Eric could not have failed to be impressed by the virtuosity, affection and joy so evident in the room. Cheers guys for an incredibly performance and thank you Eric, too!

Thomas and his friends

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.