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Guitar Society supplies tranquil sounds for unstable times

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By: Jim Dombrowski story updated March 20. 2006 9:11AM
reprinted courtesy of Prime Times, Monroe Publishing Co.

In these times of world turmoil, natural disaster and an uncertain economy, what could be more natural than to seek solace in a church?

On a recent Saturday night at First United Methodist Church in Ferndale, the sound coming from the apse wasnít the voice of a minister, but someone else filling a spiritual need.

On that most bitter of winter nights, a lone guitarist sat on a stool and wrapped an audience of around 200 in a comforting blanket of sound. The tunes ranged from familiar American anthems to original instrumentals that could be a soundtrack for a nature documentary.

The artist was Stephen Bennett, whose tools of the trade are a wealth of musical knowledge, a weathered 1930 National Steel guitar and his great-grandfatherís harp guitar.

The harp guitar is a vintage piece of wizardy that is the marriage of two instruments that looks like it takes three hands to play and sounds as unique as its appearance.

Mr. Bennett is one of many virtuoso guitarists contributing to this winterís concert series sponsored by the Michigan Fingerstyle Guitar Society. Founder Mark Hawks says that the Guitar Society started out in 2001 with a small group of musicians who shared a love for fingerstyle guitar playing and evolved into an organization with a 100 members that produces workshops and concerts promoting the musical genre.

The harp guitar was developed in the 19th century to allow guitarists a way to augment their sound by offering a second set of strings that when plucked create notes that resonate on top of what is being played below on the guitar portion of the instrument.

Guitarist Andy McKee of Kansas, who was on this yearís bill, also included the harp guitar in his show. Not all of the performers employ such unusual instruments, but if you attend a fingerstyle performance, you will be witness some unorthodox playing that will forever change the way you view that instrument. Fingerstyle musicians have occasionally been known to turn their guitars into a member of the percussion family. Thereís a style of percussive picking where the musicians use the fingers of both hands to rapidly hammer on the fretboard with occasional forceful pounding on the body thatís electryfing to watch. Anyone who has witnessed a Billy McLaughlin concert can attest to how mind-bending this type of performing can be. Itís a wonder that he hasnít been charged with assault on an inanimate object.

"I think weíve gained a really good reputation for booking great performers" said Mr. Hawks. "Our focus is definitely on great acoustic fingerstyle guitar technique but we also want to make sure that the audience is entertained. The shows we present are enjoyable to both the general music fans as well as the folks that like to sit in the front row to watch the artistsí fingers."

This readily recognizable style of guitar playing has been around for a long time and is regularly incorporated into pop and jazz standards, but itís difficult to point to musicians who have made a career out of this narrowly defined genre. Mr. Hawks usually cites Leo Kotke, Michael Hedges and Alex de Grassi who helped to establish the fingerstyle sound.

Although accomplished, the artists performing in the concert series are hardly household names. The highest profile performer might be Laurence Juber who performed with Paul McCartney and Wings in the Ď70s.

The remainder of this seasonís concert series consists of Minnesota finger-picker, Pat Donohue (who can be heard each week as a member of "The Guys All-Star Shoe Band" on National Public Radioís "A Prairie Home Companion) on March 11, Al Petteway & Amy White on April 1 and Ed Gerhard on May 6.

Sound samples can be heard on the Guitar Societyís Web site.

All performances are at the First United Methodist Church in Ferndale located at 2231 Woodward Ave. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the concert starts at 7:30 p.m. The admission is $15 for the general public and $10 for students and seniors. Thereís even homemade pie at a reasonable price served in the basement by the churchís ladies club during intermission.

"Over the last few years we seem to have developed a reputation with many of the artists as being one of the best venues in the country for fingerstyle guitar. Weíre all really proud of that distinction" said Mr. Hawks.

Visit www.fingerstyle.org for more information or call (248) 646-4030.


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