Michael Chapdelaine’s Guitar Rides with Him

Concert at The Pasadena Conservatory of Music Tuesday, November 18, 2014

By Ross Altman

Michael ChapdelaineHow good was National Fingerstyle Guitar Champion Michael Chapdelaine’s performance of solo instrumentals last night at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music? It was jaw-dropping, head-scratching, finger-picking good—that’s how good it was. But that wasn’t the most amazing thing about it. The most amazing thing about it was that it happened at all.

You see, Delta Airlines lost all of his baggage en route from Albuquerque, New Mexico where he lives to LAX—including his boxes of CDs that were supposed to pay for his trip to perform at both Boulevard Music and the Pasadena Conservatory of Music. But they didn’t lose his guitar—no thanks to Delta. As a matter of fact, that wasn’t even the most amazing thing about Delta’s performance—or rather LAX’s. Not by a long shot: LAX lost one of its passengers as well—an elderly white male suffering from some dementia whose family was eagerly awaiting his arrival and instead whose story wound up on the 11:00pm Channel 11 News—desperately trying to find him. If LAX can lose an entire person, what’re a few pieces of luggage?

But the show, as we know, must go on—and go on it did—as I was saying, no thanks to Delta or LAX. You see, Michael Chapdelaine’s guitar never saw the baggage department. Michael’s guitar rides with him—in the next seat. That’s why the concert happened—even though Michael came dressed in the simple blue T-shirt and blue jeans he traveled in from Albuquerque. His concert suit may still be traveling around the baggage claim area for all I know—they promised they would deliver his bags and CDs to the Pasadena venue sometime during the show—but they never arrived; the life of the touring guitarist in 2014.

That’s dedication in case you were wondering how best to define it. With all the money that most musicians on the road now spend on incredible crash-proof air travel guitar cases that can withstand the impact of a fall off the Empire State Building, Michael Chapdelaine’s insurance policy beat them all and left nothing to chance—if his guitar didn’t land safely, neither would he; they would both go down together in the flames.

Fortunately that didn’t happen and Michael put on a mesmerizing display of both wizardry and artistry on the stage of this magnificent music school on N. Hill Blvd in Pasadena—and he was the opening act! The theatre was packed for his performance and it was clear that he was the reason they and we were there—three songs into the headliner’s set—a highly touted bluegrass band—the seats began to empty out. So let me try to recreate a bit of Michael’s magic in hopes that another local venue like McCabe’s will bring him back to town—on a different airline.

To begin with, there is his guitar—worthy of the extra seat Michael bought for it. It was not made in a factory—even a haloed factory like Martin’s. It was hand-made by luthier Kevin Muiderman in North Dakota, a signature cut away Michael Chapdelaine model—one of several (see www.muidermanguitars.com to look at his gallery of exquisitely crafted guitars).

Chapdelaine is the only guitarist ever to win First Prize in both the world’s top competitions in classical and fingerstyle: the Guitar Foundation of America International Classical Guitar Competition and the National Fingerstyle Championships at the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in Winfield, Kansas. Now I know how the Moscow judges felt the first time they heard Van Clyburn play in 1958; seeing, they say, is believing, but I saw it and I still don’t believe it. Chapdelaine has performed at New York’s Lincoln Center and in august venues from Milan to Bangkok and here he was—playing for free at a music school in Pasadena. I only knew about the performance because one of my readers—Andrew—thoughtfully sent me a heads up about their “Guitar Night,” a regular monthly occurrence. They also have open mics on Wednesday. So I invited my favorite fingerstyle guitarist Jill Fenimore and we ventured forth to an upscale venue we had never been to—far from both the coffee house circuit and major venues like the Greek.

Michael Chapdelaine looks like a figure from another time—a 1960s California hippie—which in fact is where he came from. With his long hair and laidback manner he is the perfect embodiment of California cool—until he starts to play guitar, and then he lifts you into another singular world—of Andres Segovia for one—who was one of Chapdelaine’s early teachers—and Chet Atkins for another—in other words, the best of the best.

Chapdelaine performed a number of his original compositions that paid tribute to New Mexico—musical portraits and landscapes evoking his new home as Professor of Music and head of guitar studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, from his new CD (the one which Delta Airlines lost) called Land of Enchantment. A previous CD is similarly an evocation of place and called simply Mexico. One of the most moving and haunting pieces from Land of Enchantment embraces Native American history as well, not sentimentalized like a musical version of turquoise jewelry, but transfigured in Requiem for Geronimo. Chapdelaine’s compositions encompass the entire fret-board—which he utilizes in every way imaginable—which Jill pointed out ranged from full chords to single notes bent with the mastery of the Delta blues, progressive jazz and various harmonic variations in between. He creates an utterly original sound that completely fills the room—and this was a fairly large auditorium.

Michael Chapdelaine is clearly comfortable in the role of highbrow musician, but he is also a gifted and natural entertainer, commenting several times to humorous effect about his lost luggage and not being better dressed on stage. His instrumental selection toward the end focused in on his lost home of California, which he confided he missed and could not afford to move back to. But he has taken some of our signature songs with him and recreated these pop masterpieces as solo guitar instrumentals—first Otis Redding’s Sitting On the Dock of the Bay—which began in the first position on the first fret and slowly and dreamily made its way all the way up to the 14th fret. It was gorgeous. And yet it whetted our appetite for his piece de resistance encore—in response to a prolonged and enthusiastic ovation that rather than dying out just kept getting louder.

When Michael Chapdelaine finally returned to the stage he apologized for taking so long to get back from the wings; he said he had been looking for his capo—and was grateful that he didn’t check that either—or it too would have been lost. He placed it on the fourth fret, just like any normal guitarist might have done. And that was the extent of his nod to normality. He wanted to leave us he said with another musical homage to California—the most natural one he could have chosen. It took several measures for it to finally register in my mind—we were listening to the Beach Boys’ California Dreamin'. Chapdelaine somehow translated Brian Wilson’s entire complex harmonies for the full band into one guitar instrumental—it was pure magic and transported us into the lost world of our distant youth. What a sendoff!

You can find Michael Chapdelaine’s CDs and tour schedule—since Delta never did find them and bring them to the venue—on his website. It’s a journey well worth taking, as was ours to Pasadena to hear a great musician and guitarist.

You might start with the CD Guitar Man—which could not be more aptly named, since man and guitar became one in his incandescent performance. (You will find Sitting On the Dock of the Bay on it.) Thanks to Andrew for a great tip—and above all thank you, Michael, for making the trip. I hope Delta has found and returned your luggage by now. And I hope you can put this misadventure behind you and return to California sometime next year. I know I’ll be there—in the front row.

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature; Ross may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com