Walter Tunis: California Guitar Trio seems to make new fans wherever it plays

Contributing Music WriterOctober 3, 2013 

The California Guitar Trio is Hideyo Moriya, left, Paul Richards and Bert Lams.

  • THE WEEK THAT WAS

    The Zombies at The Kentucky Theatre: Few songs captured the head-on crash of late '60s psychedelia and vintage Brit pop more vividly than Care of Cell 44, the lead tune to the Zombies' storied sophomore album, Odyssey & Oracle. Before an enthusiastic but somewhat meager crowd at The Kentucky, the present-day Zombies let every element of the tune's masterful construction shine.

    There was the bright melodic framework of co-founder Rod Argent, the near-operatic tenor singing of fellow Zombie original Colin Blunstone and the kind of bouncy, wordless harmonies that could put the Beach Boys to shame. Wrapping up everything were lyrics that captured the song's simple but wildly unlikely premise: to offer salutations to a jailbird ("thinking of you while you're so far away").

    The performance summoned the ingenuity of the song's 1967 version with a level of technical and artistic proficiency that is largely absent when a band with such a cherished — and, in pop terms, ancient — history re-launches itself in the present day.

    Credit such credibility to the two Zombie holdovers. Argent's keyboard orchestration propelled the R&B sway of the 1965 single Can't Nobody Love You and the summery pop-soul title tune from the band's 2011 album, Breath Out Breath In. And, to absolutely no surprise, he provided a scholarly but beautifully loose jazz solo to the signature hit Time of the Season.

    Blunstone was the great wonder of this latest Zombies uprising. At 68 (he is 10 days younger than Argent), his vocal range and clarity were astoundingly strong, from the high chorus wail he summoned during the show-opening I Love You to the studied harmonic lead of A Rose for Emily, performed as a lean trio piece with Argent and bassist Jim Rodford.

    While their instrumental and vocal skills provided the foundation of the 90-minute show, Argent and Blunstone also seemed genuinely jazzed by the music they were making. This was no phoned-in oldies act. This was a vital, involving pop parade fashioned from the past but built very much for the here and now.

California Guitar Trio, Ric Horkinski

8 p.m. Oct. 6 at Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade. $20. (859) 259-2754. Beetnik.com.

There is no better way to appreciate the virtuosic technical command, vast stylistic breadth and unassuming performance profile of the California Guitar Trio than to witness its effect on a novice audience.

Take, for instance, its show last year at Berea College. In all likelihood, much of the student turnout at the CGT's convocation concert treated it as a class assignment. But at the height of the performance, the crowd — young and old attendees alike — was singing along to the trio's version of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody as though the decades-old anthem was a current radio hit.

The CGT won over an entirely different audience when it played a benefit concert last month in Traverse City, Mich. The setting alone sent up all kinds of artistic red flags.

"It was a benefit concert for the hospice in Traverse City and was set up like a party in this big outdoor tent at a golf course," said CGT guitarist Paul Richards. "There was an open bar, and they had dinner beforehand. So we were concerned that we were going to be background music. But an amazing thing happened. As soon as we started to play, the whole place went quiet. Everybody in the room was listening and totally into it. It was really wonderful — and surprising. At those events, you never know what's going to happen, because they're there as part of the support for this benefit. We made lots of new fans that night."

So goes the ongoing musical adventures that Richards (a Utah native), Bert Lams (from Belgium) and Hideyo Moriya (from Japan) have embarked on as the California Guitar Trio. The band formed in Los Angeles 22 years ago, although the three met one another in England while studying with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp.

What probably wins over unfamiliar audiences initially — whether at a small-town college campus or a posh benefit — is the remarkable stylistic range of the trio's repertoire. Everything from prog to fusion to classical to surf to multidirectional original music has a role in a CGT show. The kicker: All of the music is delivered on three acoustic guitars.

"We've never had any huge promotion team from a major record company or big money spent on promotion," Richards said of the CGT's means of getting its music across to new audiences. "But we've been able to make connections through the more ground-level promotion of local media and Internet radio. Those things have been vital in helping spread the word."

The stylistic reach of the CGT's music is underscored on its past three studio recordings. Echoes (2008) offered arrangements of wildly disparate pop material (from Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells to Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird). Andromeda (2010) focused exclusively on original music colored by various ethnic and progish accents. Masterworks (2011) was devoted to the classical works of Bach, Barber, Beethoven and others.

Another recording is in the planning stages. Until it surfaces, the trio has a new arrangement to show off as it tours: a guitar-centric reworking of jazz icon Dave Brubeck's Blue Rondo a la Turk.

"This one has gotten lots of great reaction," Richards said, "and the arrangement that we've made out of it has been super fun to play.

"It's important that the music stays exciting for us. Audiences are very sensitive to those things. If the performers onstage aren't into what they're doing, people can go away feeling that maybe what that they saw wasn't the greatest show. I think that is super important. Amongst the three of us, we've been able to find ways to come up with different ideas and different music."


THE WEEK THAT WAS

The Zombies at The Kentucky Theatre: Few songs captured the head-on crash of late '60s psychedelia and vintage Brit pop more vividly than Care of Cell 44, the lead tune to the Zombies' storied sophomore album, Odyssey & Oracle. Before an enthusiastic but somewhat meager crowd at The Kentucky, the present-day Zombies let every element of the tune's masterful construction shine.

There was the bright melodic framework of co-founder Rod Argent, the near-operatic tenor singing of fellow Zombie original Colin Blunstone and the kind of bouncy, wordless harmonies that could put the Beach Boys to shame. Wrapping up everything were lyrics that captured the song's simple but wildly unlikely premise: to offer salutations to a jailbird ("thinking of you while you're so far away").

The performance summoned the ingenuity of the song's 1967 version with a level of technical and artistic proficiency that is largely absent when a band with such a cherished — and, in pop terms, ancient — history re-launches itself in the present day.

Credit such credibility to the two Zombie holdovers. Argent's keyboard orchestration propelled the R&B sway of the 1965 single Can't Nobody Love You and the summery pop-soul title tune from the band's 2011 album, Breath Out Breath In. And, to absolutely no surprise, he provided a scholarly but beautifully loose jazz solo to the signature hit Time of the Season.

Blunstone was the great wonder of this latest Zombies uprising. At 68 (he is 10 days younger than Argent), his vocal range and clarity were astoundingly strong, from the high chorus wail he summoned during the show-opening I Love You to the studied harmonic lead of A Rose for Emily, performed as a lean trio piece with Argent and bassist Jim Rodford.

While their instrumental and vocal skills provided the foundation of the 90-minute show, Argent and Blunstone also seemed genuinely jazzed by the music they were making. This was no phoned-in oldies act. This was a vital, involving pop parade fashioned from the past but built very much for the here and now.

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