in performance: california guitar trio

The Musical Box

Monday, 24 September 2012
Walter Tunis


  • Half the fun of a concert by the California Guitar Trio comes from scanning the reactions of patrons witnessing the group for the first time. Last night’s convocation performance at Berea College’s Phelps Stokes Auditorium was full of rookie fans – students, primarily – and their enthusiasm magnified the already hearty sense of stylistic thrillseeking that distinguishes the CGT’s best music. 

    Don’t get us wrong. Guitarists Paul Richards, Bert Lams and Hideyo Moriya still ran the show with extraordinary technical command that was balanced by a thoroughly unassuming stage demeanor. Such a blend made the performance’s most daring and varied feats – including a Bach prelude played with a circulation technique, a dizzying, clap-a-long take on the surf classic Misirlou and a joyride of fuzzy, rockish guitar play that detoured into country cantina music during the CGT’s own Train to Lamy Suite – sound like parts of a singular language that served very much as a native tongue for the players. 

    Surf next to psychedelia? Classical next to Spaghetti Western themes? Pink Floyd next to Bach? You mean a guitar performance isn’t supposed to be like that? 

    The crowd almost seemed to think as much at first as it attentively but quietly greeted cyclical passages that recalled one of the CGT’s earliest influences, British guitarist Robert Fripp, during the show-opening original Yamanashi Blues. But Moriya’s assertive surf lead on Walk Don’t Run, Richards’ graceful slide work during Sleepwalk and Lams’ classical command of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor collectively seemed to open up the audience up to the trio’s almost giddy sense of genre jumping. 

    Perhaps the most obvious common ground shared by audience and artist materialized during the Queen classic Bohemian Rhapsody. The trio’s very faithful treatment of the tune has been part of its repertoire for well over a decade. And usually the inevitable (and encouraged) audience sing-a-long that ensues is measured by the level of alcohol consumed. Last night’s crowd reaction, though, was booze-free and beautifully pure. The student populace, which obviously embraced the 37 year old song as if it were a current radio hit, sang, cheered, laughed and broke into applause as the music hit its familiar mock-operatic crescendo. It was quite a moment. 

    What do you do to top that? Why, you send your crowd home with an encore of Happy Trails, performed as a warm and cordial coda for a performance that affectionately shattered stylistic expectations of what acoustic guitar concerts can and should approximate.