Guitarists John Williams & John Etheridge

Last night at Sunset Center we heard guitarists John Williams and John Etheridge in concert. Anyone expecting to hear a guitar version of “Dueling Banjos” was apt to be disappointed, for dueling they did not. A curious aspect of this concert was the unevenness of the two artists. Etheridge is a natural musician whose skill on the guitar is dazzling. There were times in his solo sets where he would be picking away at a melody that soared above a beautifully controlled accompaniment, while one of his other fingers was twanging out what sounded like a Fender Bass line — all three musical elements pumping along simultaneously gave the impression of three musicians playing together in ensemble. When John Williams appeared on stage after one of these dazzling displays of virtuosity, he said to the audience, “That’s hard to follow.” And, this was true, for Williams seemed to be a mere shadow of his former self. Acknowledged as one of the preeminent classical guitarists of his generation, it would seem that he has decided to follow the “crossover” trend and find larger audiences by abandoning his former repertoire of classical staples and seeking out new music.

The problem was that when Williams played solos, unlike Etheridge, his melodic lines tended to be obscured by accompaniment textures. There was no cantabile so melodies did not command our attention, nor were they beautifully shaped. As he played with Etheridge in the lovely piece “Triangular Situations” by Vasco Martins, Williams played the accompaniment waltz pattern so loudly, you could hardly hear Etheridge.

It was an interesting audience that attended this concert. It appeared to consist of between 400 and 500 people, and there were a lot of new faces in the audience that we don’t normally see at Carmel Music Society concerts. However, we didn’t see a lot of students, nor did we see the “brown bread and open toed sandal set” from Santa Cruz that sometimes attends pop events presented by Sunset Center. During the first fifteen minutes of the concert we heard some yahoos yelling appreciative remarks from the audience, but that quickly died down so that it was a pretty sober audience by the end of the concert, and after only one encore, the audience made for the exits.

One problem with most pop concerts is the self indulgence of the artists. There was a time when some of the best musical results were achieved in the recording studio where an artistic type A & R man, would encourage the artists to edit down their material. But, the more recent trend is to record live concerts (it is cheaper than recording in the studio), so the result is that many pieces just go on entirely too long. Thus, we heard some mind-numbing minimalism last night from these two artists, although there were also some fine moments.

So, the bottom line is: Etheridge sizzled, but Williams fizzled.

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