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Meeting the Extraordinary Pierre Bensusan Again – in Concert, this Time

October 1, 2011

I’m not sure which direction to zoom in on this story, but it’s one of the coolest ones in my life in the last two years. And last night at the Théatre de l’Essaion in Paris – near the Pompidou Center – it continued with extraordinary power. I attended a concert in a small venue to listen to Pierre Bensusan playing his acoustic guitar and singing. Sounds like nothing, right? Forget it. This guy is one of the world’s great, and original guitarists – and I’m not the only one to say that, as I will show. But there is also a personal story to this, so hang on and take a ride….

It was two years ago almost exactly that I was returning from Italy after the Italian Grand Prix and wandering around Milan airport with my guitar bag on my back. I had arrived at the airport very early, and while wandering around I crossed paths two or three times with another man carrying a guitar. We had nodded to each other as people carrying guitars will sometimes. But it was when I entered the gate an hour or so before my flight to Paris and I saw the same guy – he looked about my age, healthy and intelligent with a sharp gaze – sitting on one of the seats and fingerpicking a light melody on his guitar, that I decided to approach him.

Part of my interest was the guitar itself, the other part was just my general curiosity about anyone with a guitar in an airport or anywhere else, especially as I am on my neverending world tour of open mics and jam sessions, discovering what the world of music is all about. That was my first year of the tour. So I approached the guy and asked what kind of guitar it was, as it was indeed very interesting and old looking.

“A Lowden,” he said. And he showed me the guitar. It turned out he had had it for some 30 years or so. It also turned out that I had just recently discovered these extraordinary guitars made by a luthier in Ireland named George Lowden. I’d been reading about them in Acoustic magazine, I think, which is a magazine from the UK about acoustic guitars.

We struck up a conversation. The guy, I learned had been attending a guitar festival outside Milan, where he had been playing as a featured guest. He lived outside Paris. I told him about my life, a journalist travelling the world and playing in open mics and jams. I think I told him I’d had an amazing weekend playing with anarchists in Milan.

As the flight began boarding, we ended our talk – I showed him my Seagull, by the way – and he suggested we exchange emails. So we did, and when I looked at his and saw that his name was Pierre Bensusan, I said, “Hmm… I just read a story in Acoustic magazine last week by a gutarist with this name….”

“Yes, that’s me,” he said, adding that it was a regular column he did for the magazine.

I had rememebered seeing the name and wondering where the guy had come from and why I had never heard of him, as he was French, and I have lived in France most of my adult life.

Upon returning to Paris, I looked him up on the Internet and found his web site, and I ordered the complete works collection of CDs of his life works that he had just put out. Oh, he had given me a compilation – or mailed it to me -, I must add, and I had really enjoyed it. Looking up who he was, where he came from and listening to his music I was struck by many things: We were born only 5 weeks apart, he had listened to and been inspired by the same traditional music as I was at the same period of life in the 1970s, and he was often mentioned in the same breath as one of my favorite acoustic guitar players, John Renbourn.

So fastforward to last night. I loved Pierre’s albums, but I did not really know what to expect in the concert. I thought I would find some kind of laid-back, world music kind of thing in the concert, a reproduction of the albums. I mean, Pierre was elected “World Music Guitarist of the Year” by Guitar Player magazine in 2009 or something like that. And as I found last night, he was on the cover of Acoustic magazine in July 2011.

What was astounding in this very intimate concert last night, was just how amazingly good and entertaining and “prenant” was his playing last night. Pierre does not really like to collaborate or play with other musicians; but as I saw last night at the Theatre de l’Essaion, he does not need to. He creates so many different kinds of sounds, he crosses so many different styles, that he is trully a one-man-band. But in the best possible sense of that word. He is a virtuoso. He has his own sound. And the astounding thing is that unlike so many guitarists or other musicians who range and rove between styles, Pierre absolutely and truly captures the reality of the styles. He can jump from Celtic to jazz to Brazilian Bossa Nova and you are entirely and completely convinced by the world he inhabits and delivers to you. It is not fake. Renbourn did an interesting bluesy record with a top American bluesy musician, but although I love the record for its technical virtuosity, I am not convinced of the feeling and world behind it. With Bensusan, I am. Deadly.

Listening to the records is one thing, but hearing it live and above all, SEEING him do this stuff live is extraordinary – his fingers seem to cover all strings, all frets, all bases, with a simplicity I could only imagine possible, but never believe. I just cannot figure out how he is not better known than he is. His playing is absolutely extraordinary!

Anyway, so much for being a critic. I will never succeed. That’s not my goal, though, as I am just another musical traveller looking to be inspired by the truth. I was flattered, too, when after the concert I went to speak to him and introduced myself and he said immediately, “My travelling friend!!!!”

He remembered our meeting in the Milan airport, and the fact that music is truth, truth music, for both of us. No doubt. Except that Pierre Bensusan is soooooooooo goooood that he makes me question why I continue playing music at all. (Okay, because I enjoy it – but still….)

Oh, by the way, Pierre’s last show is on Sunday – tomorrow – at 18:30 and obviously, I highly recommend going to see it….


  1. Spot on. An enthusiast for acoustic guitar and lifelong player, I had been turned on to Bensusan’s albums by a friend. Truth be told, I thought them interesting – and him talented – but, except for a couple of pieces that really caught my attention, I wasn’t particularly moved.

    Then, one evening, at Johnny D’s in Somerville, MA, I sat about 10 feet from him as he blew away a not-packed room with guitar virtuosity and musicianship that was simply stunning. And I’ve seen them all, Kottke, Fahey, Bream, Montoya, etc. It was and still is a night to remember…better said, an evening I’ll never forget. Only downside was that I, too, considered never playing again. But I got over it.

    • Bill, thanks for that. Yes, I can see it all. And that’s also a particularly interesting you have of seeing all those others to compare him with. I’ve gotten over the guitar problem too, of course – ie., instead of wanting to quit, I feel myself trying to change the way I play a bit and trying to experiment a little more to come up with some of the sounds Pierre does. Still, my main thing is just strumming and singing. But having also heard the enormously beautiful sound of Pierre’s Lowden, I decided to finally splurge to buy myself a real guitar. I could have bought a Lowden for the same price I paid, but in the end I decided to go for a new Gibson J-200 simply because it sounded so different to my Seagull, and because it is a perfect guitar for the kind of strumming I do, and for singing as well. AND I loved the bass sound on it, yes, and ultimately the brand name sucked me in enormously too. But hearing Pierre play DID have a hand in that decision to buy a better guitar…. (Like when I bought a 1962 stratocaster in 1976 and promptly sold it because it did not make me sound like Hendrix?)

  2. Pingback: The Touching – and Occasionally Mad – Moments of a Pierre Bensusan Concert | Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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