(The Dream Guitar Session)


By Leo Kretzner

Tony_McManus.jpgI don't usually drive to Bakersfield for concerts, but was certainly glad I did a couple of Sundays ago. The hillsides along the I-5 ‘grapevine' and Tejon Pass were poppy orange and new grass green, and Tony McManus was playing at a Sunday afternoon house concert. Oh, and I was also promised dinner in addition to a few hours of excellent music - "what's not to like?!"

There are any number of A-list guitar players out there, enough that one should pause before suggesting another name be added to it, but Tony McManus ought to make the cut handily. In two hour-plus sets he exquisitely played pieces from his native Scotland, Ireland, Spain, South Africa and the United States. Among these was a beautiful, jazzy "instrumental sing-along" of Louis Armstrong's late-in-life hit, What a Wonderful World, that segued improbably but seamlessly into a minor key slip-jig - and back again.

McManus, now living in Ontario, Canada, had been in southern California for the weekend, also playing at Boulevard Music in Culver City and at a concert in Kernville. The Sunday house concert in Bakersfield was part of a monthly series sponsored by the Kern County Arts Council 661-324-9000

His performing style between pieces was humorous and down-to-earth, almost belying the artistry employed in each successive musical entree. Intricate instrumentals were occasionally broken up with pleasing, warm vocals. Between sets and afterward, McManus was friendly in answering questions, even generously demonstrating techniques and tunings for inquiring players.

Maker's Mark is the latest CD by Tony McManus and it's a beautiful piece of work that holds up impeccably through multiple plays. Subtitled The Dream Guitar Sessions, each piece on the CD is played on a different guitar made by fifteen different contemporary master luthiers. Also included with the CD is a full-color sixteen page booklet, containing pictures and information on each instrument and builder, as well as the tunings used on each piece - or, as McManus slyly summarized, "guitar porn," for those so inclined to such ‘hard core' details.

The subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle differences in each guitar's timbre and tone have been thoughtfully matched to the individual tracks, all played solo with the exception of the finale piece on which all fifteen of the guitars were used. What could have been a cacophonous ‘guitar army' mash-up is in fact arranged and executed, like all the other tracks, with great taste and finesse. McManus uses an amazing alphabet soup of nine different tunings on the CD, none of them standard - though two of them are ‘DADGAD' equivalents, starting lower (C) or higher (F), and six pieces employ the common ‘drop-D' arrangement, DADGBE.

How he keeps all these tunings straight in his mind, I have no idea, but it's a feat no less impressive than the artful dexterity with which McManus puts each tuning to use. The CD is a must-have for acoustic guitar aficionados and hearing him live the next time he's in the area is highly recommended to all.

Leo started playing dulcimer in 1975, having been a drummer and guitarist. His first albums, Dulcimer Fair and Pigtown Fling, have been described as "modern classics" in the dulcimer community and have been combined into the CD Dulcimer Fling. He abandoned the full time pursuit of poverty through music but still does the occasional performance along with teaching workshops here and there. He also waters his cacti and plays tunes with The Old Grey Cats string band in Claremont.