CHATEAU-THIERRY, France – Last weekend Pierre Bensusan held a fabulous two-day event outside his adopted home town of Chateau-Thierry, located about an hour’s drive east of Paris, where he has lived for the last 21 years. They called it the 1st Salon International de Lutherie, and it consisted of an exhibition of guitars, mandolins and violins built by luthiers from around Europe, all of whom are friends of Pierre. For his part, in addition to speaking to and meeting the public in the exhibition, Pierre put on a concert on Saturday night in the wonderful concert hall in the same building where the salon took place.
In addition to luthiers from around France and Germany (see my list of those present below), there was, of course, the presence of the Lowden Guitar company of Northern Ireland, showing off the latest prototype for the second Pierre Bensusan signature model guitar. Aaron Lowden, the son of George Lowden, who is the company founder, was there to talk about the guitar, which is a modern copy of the original 1978 Lowden that Pierre used for 25 years. It was made to honor the 40th anniversary of Bensusan’s career as a professional musician, which also happens to be the 40th anniversary for Lowden Guitars, by the way.
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If you have a problem hearing the podcast on Mixcloud, here is a connection to the same podcast but on the WordPress server:
I’m hoping to write more about this craft of lutherie in some future article somewhere, but my main goal for this post was to put up on my blog the wonderful interview that I had with Pierre during the salon, which I have recorded and dressed up a little – with sounds I recorded of Pierre playing from the concert the night before, and other surprises – in the form of a podcast.
The interview was a broad, wide-ranging talk about his life and music to mark that 40th anniversary of his career as a professional musician. He started out at age 16 at the American Center hootenanny in Paris, and today, at 56, he is roaming the world and earning honours and fans everywhere. He will be performing a monthlong, 50-date series of concerts in the United States starting next week, and is just finishing up a 21-date tour of France, his first here in 25 years.
I’m also hoping to make this podcast the first in a series that I intend to do throughout the year as I embark on my sixth worldwide musical adventure around the world, starting with Melbourne, Australia, next week. So I’m not going to write more about the concert or the festival of lutherie. Just listen to the podcast – Pierre was a fabulous interview subject!
Here, though, is a list of some of the luthiers who were present at the salon. I highly recommend you check out some of these instruments. It was a real dream to play some of them – and frustrating, too, if you happen to be a poor musician!:
PARIS – Among the many touching and deeply emotional moments of Pierre Benususan‘s concert at the Essaion theater in Paris last night, was that accompanying the third or so piece this virtuoso guitarist played, when he recounted the story of how his career took off in the United States several decades ago. It was Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, who wrote a letter to the American authorities to back up his demand to be able to go and work in the U.S. Yes, Pete Seeger, who died last week at the age of 94 after one of the most important careers in American folk music.
Bensusan, who is celebrating 40 years of a career as a professional musician this year in CDs and a series of concerts around the world (of which the concert at the Essaion is his Paris leg – and there are two more to go, tonight and tomorrow night), is himself on a clear trajectory as a legendary musician. He finished his anecdote by talking about how he ended up at a festival with Seeger, dining next to him, and hearing the great musician say that music “needs musicians like you.” The anecdote was not told as a boast, Bensusan was clearly emotionally humbled by the presence of Seeger, and his words had clearly touched Bensusan. What Seeger may not have known, though, or what may not have been immediately apparent at the time, is that there are not musicians like Bensusan. There is only Bensusan….
Oh, there was once a Michael Hedges, who by the the way, once wrote a piece called “Bensusan,” and Bensusan himself, last night in Paris played a song he dedicated to Michael Hedges. But Hedges had his style, and Bensusan has his. This French troubadour, whom I have written about in previous blog posts, has developed such a massive repertoire of personal compositions and mixtures of styles, that I’ve never personally heard, seen or heard of another guitarist on this level and with this particular voice. And speaking of voices, Bensusan also occasionally uses his vocal chords, and last night in addition to some of the mad moments of guitar fingerpicking virtuoso stuff there were some mad moments of vocal scat in which Bensusan entirely looses himself in infectious pleasure – one of those fun moments being when for his first encore he returned to the mic and did a vocal scat without touching his guitar. For the second encore he returned, picked up the guitar, and said something like: “OK, with the guitar then….”
I’ve noticed that whenever I do a post about Pierre Bensusan I tend to write glowing accounts that could almost be taken for hyperbole. So I think I will cut this one short, and let readers make up their own minds about what a great guitarist this is – amongst his many laurels were Guitar Player magazine’s crowning him the greatest World Music Guitarist, in 2008 – by looking at a few moments I managed to capture on video last night.
Just Two Nights Left to Attend Bensusan’s Concert in Paris
Two of the CDs came from my regular source: As mentioned in my first post, the Lotus Formula One team is giving out CDs quite often now to journalists and any other takers and interested people in the paddock, as they have some kind of a sponsorship deal with Columbia Records. So at two of the last three races – Singapore and Japan – I picked up the new crop.
When you think of it, though, the third CD – or rather, the box of three – which comes as an advance review copy before its release – tomorrow – from Pierre Bensusan, also ultimately came to me by way of my worldwide open mic musical adventure that I run along with my job attending the races. I say that because it was thanks to carrying my guitar around with me to the races that three or four years ago I ran into this other guy a couple of times carrying a guitar in the Milan airport (after the Italian Grand Prix), and we had nodded at each other, and then I struck up a conversation with him, since he had this neat old guitar he was playing at the airport gate while we waited for the same flight. The guitar was a Lowden, and the guitar player, I learned, was Bensusan. I had not recognized him, but once we exchanged emails, I immediately recognized his name – in fact, I’d just read a column of his in Acoustic Magazine a week or two before! Since then, I corresponded with him a few times, bought his entire career’s box set of albums, and attended a concert of his in Paris, becoming a fervent fan of this virtuoso guitarist.
The Astounding Pierre Bensusan and his 40-Year Career
Pierre Bensusan’s “Encore”
It turned out that aside from being a couple of guys who frequent airports frequently carrying guitars around the world, we had another thing in common: Our respective ages – we were born less than six weeks apart – and the fact that we were both heavily influenced by the same traditional Celtic music during the Celtic revival of the early 1970s. There the comparisons between Pierre Bensusan and me stop, however, as this man is more than a seriously talented virtuoso guitarist: He is a near genius guitarist and composer of fabulous pieces that now range the entire gamut from Celtic to jazz to Arabic to klezmer to even a slightly rock and/or jazz fusion feel to certain of his rhythms. Throw in a bit of country too. All of that would be why he would be thrown into the World Music category – where he was named best guitarist by Guitar Player magazine a few years ago, I think 2008. He is a master of the open tuning known as DAGDAD, and while he plays on a steel string folk guitar, it might as well be a nylon classical for all the range he gets out of it. Having bought that complete works box set – minus his latest album “Vividly” – from the Bensusan web site store I thought I had heard all the Bensusan sounds that I needed to. Until I received this review copy of “Encore,” which has been released to mark 40 years of live performance by Pierre, I thought I had all the CDs by him that I needed. Wrong. In this package I learned from listening to the earliest recordings that although I have been playing guitar since the age of eight, Pierre certainly played the way I do now only only the second day he picked up his guitar. His talent goes way, way back, and as the title of the CD indicates – Encore, or “More” and/or “Again,” – there is sure to be much more….
The CD has a fabulous booklet with photos of Pierre throughout his life, and a nice little autobiography from him, outlining that life. Originally from the Jewish community of Algeria, he moved to France as a boy and grew up in Suresnes – down the Seine river from my home in Asnières – and decided to change his first name at age 12 to Pierre, because of the song, “Chauffe Marcel!” of Jacques Brel!!! Chauffe, chauffe!!! He describes his ancestry as “sephardic-hispanic-algerian-maroccan-anglo-persian-alsacien”… well you get the idea. Just like his music, right? He grew up listening in his family to “jazz, English rock, R&B, swing, chanson, flamenco, arab-andalouse music, classical music, opera, gypsy, musette and tango…” Yes, again, the influences come out in his own music, and the traces of it all are there from the beginning. In fact, I was astounded to hear him play bluegrass mandolin on the first tracks of the second CD, in recordings from 1975.
After quitting school at age 16, he set out on his worldwide travels playing the music of the world, and rubbing shoulders, playing with and meeting some of the great musicians of the period. In fact, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez had so much respect for him that they helped him get a green card to work in the United States. And it is only really in live that the full thrust of Bensusan’s guitar-playing genius can be appreciated to the full – that’s why this 3-CD collection of live recordings throughout his 40-year career is worth having. It may not be the same thing as seeing him play what sometimes sounds like three guitars at once, but it is a close substitute. And it’s also worth it just for the story he writes within.
Kings of Leon’s Latest Album “Mechanical Bull”
kings of leon
From the virtuoso guitarist Pierre Bensusan, I move directly to the sixth studio album of the American band, Kings of Leon. The Followill brothers’ sound is here, the voices are here, the lyrics are here. This is a competent album and not a disappointment – but I don’t hear any hits like the absolutely sensation songs “Sex on Fire” or “Use Somebody” of their previous efforts. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I was just listening too much to Pierre Bensusan. Still, the rock rhythms were good for exercising to.
MGMT – Latest Self-Named Album
Finally, I came into possession of my only MGMT album. This psychedelic rock band, sorry, just doesn’t do much for me. Of the three CDs I’ve spoken about here, I think I did my most lethargic morning exercises to this one, which was released in September, like the Kings of Leon. It is very highly competent, and has some interesting ideas – unusual vocals opening the album on “Alien Days,” slick and catchy rhythms and freaky melodies.
A Morning Exercise Music Inspired Parable Involving Genesis and Alan Stivell
There’s an interesting thing here with the contrast between the Bensusan album and the other two. It’s highly personal, but I must say, it brings me back to a personal anecdote from 1974 when I was living in Ottawa, in Canada (in case you mistake it for Ottawa, Illinois), and my friend Shane and I had to choose between attending a concert by Alan Stivell, the Celtique harp player from Brittany, and Genesis, the progressive rock band at the Civic Centre hockey arena.
I loved both Stivell’s music and Genesis. I had albums by both, and had listened to them already for a couple of years or so. In the end, we chose Stivell, perhaps thinking that we might more easily have another chance at Genesis than Stivell. The concert turned out to be absolutely fabulous, with Stivell jumping down into the audience at the end, while playing a bodhran or crumhorn or some such thing, and the hundreds of spectators of the staid civic centre, home of the opera, standing up, dancing and celebrating the liveliness of the music, and especially, the performer.
As we took the bus home, and Shane and I were still in this ecstatic state of celebration and joy from the Stivell concert, the bus stopped at the Civic Centre and picked up the concert goers who were just streaming out the doors of the arena from the Genesis concert. They were all half-asleep and stoned and down and out and basically the opposite of the joyous condition that Shane and I were in due only to the nature of Stivell’s performance. Shane and I looked at each other and thought the same thing at the same moment: We had made the right decision. The contrast between two kinds of music we loved could not be greater. I love rock and pop, but Bensusan’s virtuosity takes the day. May there be another 40 years of live performance.
Well, that rounds that up. A small morning exercise crop of CDs, my fifth of the year since I started doing this in April, or whenever it was…. I’ve done a lot of exercising since then, and hope I can continue to feed the musical habit that keeps the exercising alive…
My post yesterday covered three days and more than a thousand words – I think – and was certainly at the level of the verbal runs. So today, given lack of time and a sense of compassion for my faithful readers, I have decided only to post the videos from my evening at the Ptit Bonheur la Chance open mic in Paris last night. And to say that it was a fabulous night with some amazing performers. There were some amazing guitars, too, and interestingly, one guitar reminded me of Pierre Bensusan – since it was a Lowden – and a song from someone up after that was a traditional Irish song done in the interpretation of Pierre Bensusan. That’s the evening in a nutshell, micro-post, as opposed to mini-post.
PS: When I sang “Just Like a Woman,” and I sang the words, “she breaks just like a little girl” there was a huge crash of around 10 to 15 beer glasses breaking on the stairs behind me. It felt like I commanded her break….
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….