Stefan Grossman is one of the most influential guitarists of the last fifty years. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York and began idolising musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Rev. Gary Davis and Lead Belly. On Friday 31st October 2013 he came to The Lights Theatre in Andover.
When I heard that Stefan Grossman was coming to Andover I was quite excited and a little surprised. This guitar legend had chosen to come here to our little town. This amazement is completely unfounded when I think about the fact that the Lights is a fantastic music venue. The theatre itself is a lovely size. It has very good acoustics and, after all, is a professionally run theatre. I studied performing arts at Cricklade twelve years ago and back then the theatre was part of the college. Maybe it’s still hard to believe that somewhere that was pretty shabby back then is now displaying artists such as Stefan Grossman, The Four Tops and Tommy Emmanuel. The foyer is modern and uniquely designed with large white panels opening into the arena. However, because it is a fairly small venue, it feels very warm and welcoming. The staff are always helpful and friendly and so are the Volunteers.
The Auditorium was the perfect place for Stefan Grossman to play. The arena would have been too spread out and I think it benefited from everyone being quite close together. Stefan came onto the stage with his guitar, sat down and immediately started playing. He opened with a really nice classic “I IV V” blues which settled everyone into the evening. He introduced the next piece as Richland Women Blues by Mississippi John Hurt. The song was lovely and his spoken, slightly hesitant singing style was quite relaxing. He made a couple of little jokes as well which the audience responded well to.
This guy was quite funny.
He continued to play song after song of incredibly skilled Ragtime and blues which put a smile on my face throughout the entire two hours of his performance. He described Ragtime as playing the guitar like the piano. I had never thought of it like that before.
One guy, guitar, stage, two hours? Now, you might think this would get boring after a while, particularly if you are not a guitarist. But he managed to fill the stage (figuratively, not literally) with his diverse song choices, big personality and mesmerizing playing technique.
In the first half he took us through a hypothetical conversation between a typical couple who might come to one of his concerts; the husband who plays the guitar and the wife who does not play the guitar. Meet Gareth and Ethel. Ethel says to Gareth “There, ya see. He knows more than one song Gareth. He doesn’t only play Freight Train.” Gareth replies “It’s hard Ethel. Playing the guitar is hard.” Ethel retorts with “Yeah but you’ve been playing for 26 years, Gareth.” This went on and on and got funnier and funnier. The clever thing was that he managed to work some discreet self promotion in there too when Gareth and Ethel get home and Ethel decides to go on to Youtube and watch a Stefan Grossman instructional video.
So this guy is really funny.
There were some truly hilarious moments which had me in stitches along with the rest of the audience. I particularly loved it when he made light of the guitarists who come and watch him play and do nothing but stare insubstantially at the fretboard. At this point he would come out with some ludicrous lick which redefines his influence making him what I would plainly and simply describe as ‘The Man.’
The first half and second half had some great audience participation where he had us joining in with the singing, clapping and even a bit of improvisation! I was pleasantly surprised when the audience actually clapped in time. This does not usually happen. Or they start out well and end about ten or twenty bpm (beats per minute) faster. We were pretty good.
Rev. Gary Davis’ Candyman and Stefan’s take on Skip James’ version of Little Brother Montgomery’s Special Rider Blues and Blues for the Man were beautiful pieces and so well chosen for the evening. Blues for the Man had a lovely use of dissonance and harmony which creates slight unease and tension and then release. Among all this classic Blues and Ragtime he threw in a fantastic version of Amazing Grace where he brought Gospel, Blues and Ragtime together to form something completely new, certainly to me.
I knew what an amazing talent he was before last night. This was why is decided to go and see him. But among all of his great skill, musicianship, effortless stage presence and comedy he left me with one thought which overtook the rest. His ability to be delightfully big headed without being at all crude or offensive. But let’s face it. He can be, right?