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Live Guitars From Birmingham: Rhys Chatham, David Grubbs & Pierre Bensusan

Martin Longley By

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Brooklyn denizen David Grubbs came to light as a member of Bastro and Gastr Del Sol, in the 1980s and '90s, but this old Chicagoan has since refined a reputation as a solo performer, and an individualist in general. He turned up at the Canal Basin of Coventry on a quiet Monday night, barely coaxing out 10 punters, after around five had already departed, clearly attending as buddies of the opening act. Richard Allen is a local acoustic guitarist and singer, completely indebted to the style of Nick Drake, but sonically amiable despite a lack of originality. Grubbs sounded like a more evolved representative of the troubadour tradition, emerging from a completely different background of discordant rock contrariness. Still singing, still accompanying himself on guitar, but now it's electrified, and the vocals are flatter, more narratively inclined. Several tunes were instrumental, allowing Grubbs to expose his soundtrack-shaping techniques, playing with distortion decay, manipulating ends into beginnings, bleeding notes from one phrase to another, bending with control. This was an intimate recital that had its advantages. Usually, The Tin (previously known as Taylor John's House, and sadly re-named) pulsates to a bigger crush of bodies, but it remains a homely joint to experience music even when bordering on the empty. It was easier for Grubbs to chat naturally to the gathering, relating the background to some of his songs, particularly with "I Started To Live When My Barber Died," which was equally notable for its content and its verbal introduction.

Pierre Bensusan
mac
June 14, 2014


Some artists are destined to trade on a specific appeal, instilled in players of their shared instrument. Guitars are probably the most popular choice of all, for amateurs and professionals alike, so this French picker has a pre-existing audience of willing supplicants. Pierre Bensusan appeared in the intimate surroundings of this arts centre's Hexagon Theatre, where seats are stacked up in micro-collosseum fashion. His current tour celebrates 40 years on the road, which are viewed by Bensusan as being akin to some never-ending global tour. He seemed pleased about this situation, though, and set off on a single set that would eventually run to over 90 minutes, becoming quite a challenge when sitting in seats which feel more cramped than usual without the relief of an intermission. The theatre's vertical incline is somewhat sharp.

The nature of solo guitar music is such that it's best heard with a break in the middle, but Bensusan felt compelled to play a single chunk, fearing the potential dispersal caused by a global sporting event that this column is determined not to name. In itself, the playing was impressive in its technical mastery, full of inspired decoration, finger-twisting flourishes and emphatic drama. Unfortunately, as the tunes accumulated, they began to sound worryingly similar, most of them being original compositions. Fiddling with his laptop, Bensusan was seemingly in control of his sound balance, adding reverb which was too much, and powering the p.a. speakers too high in such a close-quartered space. Bensusan's singing sounded closest to a flighty Cameroonian weightlessness, as mastered by Richard Bona, possibly with Brazilian influences, but once again, as the Frenchman slipped in a vocal number here and there, they ended up being very close bedfellows, melodically speaking. The nature of the themes were sometimes quite bland, but Bensusan was clearly impressing many members of the specialised gathering, as he reminisced about the guitar lineage called up by various tune dedications and stylistic cap-doffings. Ultimately, he offered a personalised string-language that shied away from being termed jazz, blues, gypsy, classical or folk, flirting with aspects of all these. Whether this made Bensusan's music aimlessly undecided or poly-culturally diverse, it was in the ears of the audience to decide.

Photo Credit:
Inès Elsa Dalal

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