Guitar mesmerist Mike Dawes hits the Garde Thursday along with Tommy Emmanuel
P.T. Barnum, who knew a thing or two about illusion and sleight of hand, might have said, "There's a guitarist born every minute."
Maybe so, but there are damned few of them like Tommy Emmanuel and Mike Dawes, both of whom play Thursday at the Garde Arts Center in New London. Watch closely and try to believe the signals your eyes and ears are sending to your brain. It's not magic — these are incredible musicians who aren't relying on trickery but simply have honed their vision and craft to a rarified artistic level. There are plenty of reasons Emmanuel and Dawes routinely land on any number of Best Acoustic Guitarist or Best Guitarist in the World polls or critics' lists. They're just that good.
Emmanuel headlines. An Australian who's been around for decades, Emmanuel was one of very few players "knighted," so to speak, as a Certified Guitar Master by Chet Atkins. Whether cleverly arranging iconic tunes — his "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," for example, is breathtaking — he's also adept at writing his own pop/jazz hybrids on albums. His 2018 "Accomplice One" duets album, recorded in Nashville, showcases Emmanuel with an amazing array of collaborators, including Mark Knopfler, Jake Shimabukuro, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Suzy Boggus, and David Grissman.
A friendly warning, though, to any ticketholders who might be casually dismissive of opening act Dawes and meander in just to see Emmanuel. Do NOT make that mistake.
Dawes is a British guitarist/composer of vision, heart and beauty, and he plays with scurrying-spider dexterity. Fingers on his left hand trace melodies or chords directly onto the fretboard, while his right hand picks contrapuntal and lavish patterns — and somehow he incorporates the heels of palms or whatever digits he's not already using to provide percussion or coax timbral overtones and harmonics. Throw in some pedal effects and ... presto!
None of this technique is at the expense of song or melody. On his two solo albums, "What Just Happened?" and 2017's "Era," Dawes utilized flash when required as just another building block in the construction of gorgeous, atmospheric original pieces or clever versions of favorite tunes by artists from Gotye and Stevie Wonder to John Mayer and Metallica.
In addition to his solo work, Dawes is a member of the '80s-style synth pop trio Nik Mystery and also accompanies Moody Blues guitarist/singer/songwriter Justin Hayward on his solo tours. In fact, Dawes will return to the Garde on Oct. 12 when Hayward headlines.
Packing last week to fly from England to the U.S. for the Emmanuel tour, Dawes took time to answer a few questions. The answers have been edited for space.
Q: A lot of musicians not in the mainstream or with major labels have had to scramble with the changes in the music business. For artists like yourself, it would seem outlets like social media and streaming provide different opportunities that work in your favor.
A: Right now, I'd tend to agree but there needs to be context. Personally, I wouldn't be playing at your wonderful Garde Theatre if it wasn't for YouTube and people sharing my music on other websites. However, in order to make a living doing this stuff, fan support is SO important. The amount of international bureaucracy alone means that, for someone like me coming over from the U.K., the costs are quite massive proportionally — so when someone comes up to the merch table and says, "Great show, I'll take a CD," it really means the world and makes it possible.
Q: Similarly, there's a lot of fear and/or criticism that the formulaic templates for pop music and rap have significantly dumbed down the industry. But, as per your clinics and instructional work, and the response you get at shows or from your recordings, do you maybe feel encouragement over the number of interesting new artists and styles of music that are out there?
A: I think the concept of "mainstream pop music" is interesting, because, as you mentioned before, there are so many other arguably bigger methods of finding a listener. Heavy metal music, for example, is massively popular on Spotify, but not on the radio. Commercial pop music is definitely as harmonically straightforward as it's ever been (there are many studies on this, actually) but, equally, there are so many new avenues where interesting and unusual music can be discovered and can inspire! It's all positive, and I'm a guy who has been known to cover a bunch of pop songs!
Q: When you were young and just getting interested in guitar, what attracted you to the possibilities of acoustic rather than electric — and at what point did you start to see the myriad possibilities beyond just fingerpicking?
A: Well, being British, I was super into Iron Maiden and the electric guitar! I switched to acoustic at 17 when I found it was so much more appropriate for self-accompaniment. Fingerpicking allows you to play bass, melody, harmony and even percussion. I was from a small town without many other musicians to play with, so it felt right to just kind of go it alone. I was mostly self-taught, but the few lessons I had in the UK were invaluable. A good teacher is very important.
Q: Onstage, you're doing some incredibly complex stuff. You also infuse a lot of genuine charm and personality between songs through anecdotes and humor. It's clearly part of your natural personality, but does it also help make the music more approachable for a crowd that's maybe not as musically sophisticated as you'd see at a clinic?
A: I appreciate what you're saying, and I see parallels with any one-man show. At the end of the day, you're up there with nothing but honest expression. There are no tricks; in fact, I usually try and explain what's going on during the concerts to make it a bit educational. The non-guitar geeks in the room usually enjoy this. As for whether someone has to be a guitar geek to appreciate the show, I'd totally disagree. It's an all-round entertaining experience and that's why people like Tommy (are so popular across the board). I'm so excited to see Tommy's show every night on this tour. He's at the absolute top of his game. So incredible!
Q: Talk about your approach to composing. Do the percussion and melodies only come after a chord structure and musical sections? Or can you simply be inspired by a beat and dive in from there? Or maybe a vocal melody that you then play on guitar and build the chords around that?
A: Great question. It varies a lot, actually, but usually it's either a melody sparking an idea that leads to harmony and onto all the trimmings, or it's a spark in the form of a short passage that just guides the way. Occasionally, I do start with rhythm, though. I have a song called "Overload" from my "Era" album that started as a drum groove.
Q: How do you choose material to cover by other artists?
A: Firstly, the song must mean something deeper. The amount of dissection required in arranging it for solo guitar is crazy, so it almost needs to bring you enough joy to counter the repetitiveness in arrangement and practice. The song itself usually must contain a really catchy melody, because you have no lyrics in solo guitar. It would, for example, be pretty hard to cover a rap song without any lyrics.
Q: Finally, have you ever done a clinic and, just for the hell of it, sat down and said, "Today we're going to learn a progression called C to A minor" and then just played those two chords over and over till it got uncomfortable? Maybe not ...
A: No, but I do enjoy getting a room full of guitarists to change their tuning all at once. It's ... not a pleasant sound.
If you go
Who: Mike Dawes opening for Tommy Emmanuel
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London
How much: $35-$55
For more information: (860) 444-7373, gardearts, mikedawes.co.uk
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