Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Music of Acoustic Alchemy: Red Dust & Spanish Lace

The music of Acoustic Alchemy takes me back to my Messiah College days. I discovered the group sometime in 2003 thanks to Launchcast, a great Yahoo! internet music service that is currently defunct. I run across the service during those late summer nights when I'd get off work and just spend my time online until the sun came up; it basically kept me going till I could eat breakfast, and then get some sleep.

Since my music preferences were mostly set for "Jazz" and "Easy Listening", Acoustic Alchemy eventually popped up one day...and I was hooked. I remember checking out their website, and they had this player which played the full tracks from (as far as I can remember it) two of their last albums: The Beautiful Game and Aart. Aart was my first purchase from them, and, consequently, the album I used to introduce my brothers to the group. It's notable for having one of my favourite Acoustic Alchemy songs - "Passion Play" - and in 2012, during my twin brother's wedding, the groomsmen marched in to the church to the tune of "The Velvet Swing".

Anyway, I continued to follow the group, and later that year they released "Radio Contact", which I also ended up purchasing, in addition to some of their back catalog. As luck would have it, they ended up coming to perform a concert in Pennsylvania (Reading, PA to be exact).  The concert venue was slightly more than an hour away from Messiah, but, luckily, my then-girlfriend (Heather) drove us down and we got to experience Acoustic Alchemy in all their glory. Back then they still had bassist Frank Felix in their lineup; and Eddie M. was the man on sax-duty that night (a role that had been filled by Jeff Kashiwa for the making of Aart). Otherwise, the core was the same: Greg Carmichael (strings), Miles Gilderdale (strings), Fred White (Keys) and Greg Grainger (drums).
Any of their concerts is basically a time for comedy. Anytime you have Miles ad-libbing on the mic, something funny is bound to happen. This concert bookmarks 2004 for me because I remember Miles and Frank poking fun at the whole Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake debacle during the Superbowl Halftime show.

The tracklist consisted of a diverse bunch of tracks, some from Aart, The Beautiful Game, and of course, Radio Contact. However, towards the end, Greg went into an extended flamenco guitar solo that had me hypnotized. The tune felt somewhat familiar, but I wasn't sure I had actually encountered it. He put on a wonderful show in that solo, with so many emotions explored in the fast/slow ebb and flow of his notes, taking you on along for the ride; and just when I thought he was done, he starts playing double-time, and then they ended up segueing from the guitar solo into a more rapid flamenco infused piece by the whole band; I use the word "infused" because it is flamenco-nuanced. Actually, one of the guitars (Greg's Nylon) starts out in flamenco, but eventually he ends up switching to his more traditional playing style, with the band providing some flamenco riffs here and there. This is actually one of those long-form songs (not typical of their style), which starts out one way and then totally morphs into something unexpectedly new.

I remember that at the end of the concert they asked us if we had any requests that they'd want us to play. It was a free-for-all, and people pretty much shouted their favourites. Wish I could have been more emphatic in asking for "Passion Play", but instead they went with a wonderful version of "Flamoco Loco" that included a solo by drummer Greg Grainger which delved into an interpolation of Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" before finally climaxing as Flamoco Loco. (In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have asked for a song that needed a vocalist to hum along; but from a few videos on Youtube, I now see that they've decided to forgo the vocalist and still make an attempt to play it live).

In what must have seemed an injustice to me at that time, by the end of the concert they neglected to announce what the name of the flamenco song that they'd performed was; didn't even leave a hint in terms of which album it was from (and by this point in their careers, they were 13 albums deep). So I was left to track down things the old-fashioned way: listening to the CD track sampler on Amazon.com. Eventually, I found it: the title track from their very first album, Red Dust and Spanish Lace. Listening to the track, even now, brings back that subtle memory of that wintry night in Reading, PA, and the effervescent joy of knowing that beyond the enchanting solo (which is half of the song's length) lies a veritable feast in terms of good music.

The whole album is a masterpiece (and I'll get down to some of the standout tracks in due time), but it is its final track which is a true showstopper.

God Bless



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