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.
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!