Adrian Legg, Jammin' Java, Vienna, Virginia, USA, November 2, 2002
When I took guitar lessons with Celtic musician Connie McKenna, she spoke reverently of what she termed "the mystical union of the flesh, the nail and the string." This refers to the Holy Grail of fingerstyle guitarists, a special state of guitar nirvana. When the string is struck perfectly, the note that results will be exactly on pitch with a pure, bell-like tone that can reverberate forever if the player lets it.
Few guitarists manage to consistently reach this state of grace. Adrian Legg's sold-out performance at Jammin' Java in Vienna, Virginia, however, was a revelation. Legg seems incapable of striking a note that isn't perfectly in tune. Pitches seemed to hang in the air as clear and perfect as etched glass. This is a man who tunes better than most guitarists play. Legg's style is unclassifiable, "wizardry" is probably the most accurate description. He writes guitar music that combines elements of blues, country, folk, jazz, rock and classical influences. As you would expect from the author of the bible of electric guitar setup, Customizing Your Electric Guitar, Legg has many techno-tricks up his sleeve. His guitar is customized with Keith-style banjo tuners so that he can do the banjo players' trick of retuning while playing. Legg is not a bit shy about using effects such as reverb and digital delay so that he can play against notes that he has sounded seconds before. His guitar can imitate just about any instrument and he is famous for his pedal steel-style string bends and impossibly long strings of hammer-ons and pull-offs.
In his Jammin' Java show, he played music that gave ample proof of his versatility as both a writer and guitarist. "The Cuckoo" was a dizzying blur of syncopated notes and amazing harmonics. Legg followed it up with the "The Irish Girl," a flowing, lyrical, Celtic-tinged lullaby. This tune gained a huge resonance due to his use of an open tuning and a sound set up that was rich in reverb. Legg achieved a very "three dimensional" sound by simultaneously playing melody, rhythm and a bass countermelody which blended with the overtones of previous notes he'd struck. "Rusty Nail," belying its name, consisted of a limpid stream of ornaments without any discernible spaces between them. Legg created a "wall of sound" that defied one of the basic rules of acoustic guitar, that a string can only vibrate for a short amount of time. Legg also displayed amazing low-tech wizardry in "Brooklyn Blossom" a tune that displays his two-capo technique to great effect. Whatever gadgetry Legg uses is secondary to his amazing guitar virtuosity.
Throughout the concert, Legg displayed his subversive, self-deprecating and wonderfully absurd sense of humor, introducing "two tunes from his bad title period," and his aborted attempt at a Blues composition, "Not Remotely Blue." He explained that when he attempted to write a Blues song he quickly discovered that English people like himself do not get blue. They get depressed. "They have a nice cup of tea and that's that." Legg, who has been a commentator-at-large for National Public Radio's All Things Considered, delivered a wry, raunchy, hilarious line of patter that was essentially a long string of penis jokes. Outside of some old Robin Williams routines, I've never before heard so many kennings for "Mr. Willie." Not the sort of thing one expects to hear in staid old Northern Virginia, especially in a venue that was founded as, and I believe still is, a Christian coffeehouse.
Speaking of Jammin' Java, the "Jammin'" in the club's name seems to refer to the seating, which is impossible. I'm a tiny person, but I found I had to be eternally vigilant lest my knees lodge in somebody's bottom, my elbows in their guts, or my hands in their laps. The chairs were placed in straight rows rather than staggered which meant that everyone got a view of the neck of person in front of them and little more. The seats themselves were the most uncomfortable ones I've ever encountered. On the plus side, however, Jammin' Java's performance space is really welcoming with its high ceilings, exposed brick and homey ambiance. It's a cheerful, intimate space that looks like the music club of everyone's dreams. The food is good and they also serve coffee, wine and beer. The sound system is to die for.
To sum up, Adrian Legg is an extremely eclectic performer and songwriter who moves effortlessly between jazz, country, classical and Celtic styles, usually within the same tune. His performance left this "traddie" a bit dazed and confused but hungry for more.
Adrian Legg's most recent recordings are Postcard From London (2001), Fingers & Thumbs (1999), and Guitarbones (to be released in January, 2002). You can find out more about Adrian at www.adrianlegg.com.
Jammin' Java's Web site will give you upcoming artist info and other info about the venue.