Gui­tarists who rocked ‘Ana­cos­tia Delta’

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC - BY TERENCE MCAR­DLE terence.mcar­dle@wash­post.com Ana­cos­tia Delta: Home of the Great “Un­known” Gui­tars Film pre­view with live mu­sic Feb. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at AMP at Strath­more. Show is sold out.

The film “Ana­cos­tia Delta: Home of the World’s Great ‘Un­known’ Gui­tarists” prom­ises to shed light on the last­ing in­flu­ence of gui­tarist Danny Gat­ton and the mu­sic of D.C. and Prince Ge­orge’s County road­houses and honky-tonks.

(A sneak pre­view of the documentary, still a work in progress, is sold out for its Feb. 25 screen­ing at AMP by Strath­more. )

Gat­ton, a child prodigy who was called “the hum­bler” and “the world’s great­est un­known gui­tarist,” played his first pay­ing gigs at 13 and could re­put­edly play any song by ear. His tech­ni­cal prow­ess hum­bled other as­pir­ing pick­ers and sent many back to the wood­shed. But be­yond the speed and flash, Gat­ton moved au­di­ences with his bluesy lyri­cism. His sui­cide at age 49 in 1994 shocked the D.C. mu­sic com­mu­nity and mu­si­cians world­wide.

In June 2015, 30 in­stru­men­tal­ists per­formed in con­cert at Alexandria’s Birch­mere mu­sic hall to honor his legacy. Fif­teen were gui­tarists, and most of them played a Tele­caster, the bulky solid-wood model that pro­duces the pierc­ing tre­ble tone fa­vored by Gat­ton and gui­tarist Roy Buchanan.

“About three years ago, the idea of rekin­dling some­thing about Danny on a con­cert stage took root,” said the film’s di­rec­tor, Bryan Re­ich­hardt. “Not only put­ting to­gether a film but events and fes­ti­vals. One of our mod­els was ‘Buena Vista So­cial Club’ [Wim Wen­ders’s film about Ha­vana mu­si­cians],” Re­ich­hardt said. “Danny was the ful­crum. We knew peo­ple would rally around that but we re­ally wanted to tell the story of D.C. Danny syn­the­sized ev­ery­thing but [the mu­sic] was al­ready a melt­ing pot.”

The “Ana­cos­tia Delta,” Gat­ton’s nick­name for the Wash­ing­ton re­gion, is a play on the Mis­sis­sippi Delta, home to an in­stantly rec­og­niz­able style of blues. And the bright and twangy syn­the­sis of coun­try, rhythm-and-blues and jazz played by gui­tarists such as Gat­ton and Buchanan is as unique to the Po­tomac re­gion as deep blues is to the Mag­no­lia State. This D.C. style could be de­scribed as a mix of gui­tar twang and Ham­mond B-3 or­gan soul. But that’s only part of it.

The stylis­tic gumbo took hold in the 1960s be­cause so many of the area’s mu­si­cians worked six or seven nights, of­ten at the same bars and of­ten with au­di­ences ex­pect­ing they would take re­quests.

“If you were around dur­ing the 1950 and ’60s, well into the ’70s, if you were in a coun­try band, you were ex­pected to play ev­ery­thing. You had to play jazz, stan­dards, Top 40,” said John Previti, the film’s mu­sic di­rec­tor and for­mer Gat­ton bassist.

“I re­mem­ber work­ing with old­timers on wed­ding gigs and they’d play med­leys,” he said “They wouldn’t name the songs, just call the key. Luck­ily, I knew the melodies. Danny was like that. His eye­brow would go up and you’d have to fol­low where he was go­ing.”

In one filmed in­ter­view, singer Ron MacDon­ald from Gat­ton’s first pro­fes­sional band, the Off­beats, re­called a lounge gig where, with imp­ish de­light he per­formed an en­tire set of dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Er­roll Gar­ner’s “Misty” — “Misty” in a Latin rhythm, “Misty” as a bal­lad, “Misty” as a shuf­fle — just to see if peo­ple lis­tened.

A com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor for many play­ers was a de­sire to re­main in — or re­turn to — the D.C. area. Re­ich­hardt noted that most “don’t seem to be think­ing, ‘I’m go­ing to Nashville to make it.’ ”

“Mu­si­cians in this area — some­how they want to make a liv­ing at it but they don’t want to change what they do,” he said. “They don’t want to con­form. Danny didn’t want to be pi­geon­holed mu­si­cally. And he loved [restor­ing] cars as much as he loved play­ing mu­sic.”

The film com­bines mu­sic and in­ter­views to high­light Gat­ton’s ca­reer, touch­ing on lo­cal mu­si­cians who influenced him. There are sec­tions de­voted to gui­tarist Chick Hall Sr., who ran the Surf Club, the Bladens­burg honky-tonk; R&B sax­o­phon­ist Joe Stan­ley, who led one of D.C.’s finest va­ri­ety bands, the Sax­tons; and Stan­ley’s gui­tarist Frankie She­gogue.

She­gogue, an un­her­alded vir­tu­oso from South­ern Mary­land, be­friended the 10-year-old Gat­ton while both were try­ing out in­stru­ments in a store, and he later men­tored the young­ster. Buchanan, whose string py­rotech­nics ri­valed Jimi Hen­drix for in­no­va­tion, also casts a tall shadow in the nar­ra­tive.

The con­cert in­cluded a re­union of Gat­ton’s early band, Danny and the Fat Boys, with singer Billy Han­cock; a trib­ute by bassist Steve Wolf and steel gui­tarist Gary Lee Gim­ble to Gat­ton’s Red­neck Jazz col­lab­o­ra­tions with pedal-steel gui­tarist Buddy Em­mons; and a per­for­mance by Tom Prin­ci­pato, who coaxed him out of a brief re­tire­ment in the 1980s. Ap­pear­ances by Gat­ton pro­tégé Dave Chap­pell, for­mer Miles Davis side­man Mike Stern and jazz player An­thony Pirog, who was 14 when Gat­ton died, brought the joint Gat­ton-Buchanan legacy for­ward.

The Ana­cos­tia Delta Trio, with Previti, gui­tarist Jim Stephan­son and pi­anist Tim Ford, is sched­uled to per­form be­fore the screen­ing. A ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion with the film’s cre­ators will fol­low, with out­takes and in­ter­views that won’t be in the fi­nal film.

The film­mak­ers em­pha­size that the AMP pre­sen­ta­tion is not the fi­nal cut that they hope to even­tu­ally present at fes­ti­vals and mar­ket to the­aters, tele­vi­sion and for DVD. The next sched­uled screen­ing is May 24 at the Alt Gui­tar Sum­mit, a fes­ti­val in New York City.

“We’re rais­ing money to pay for the mu­sic rights for fu­ture screen­ings and for footage from old tele­vi­sion shows and pho­tos,” said pro­ducer Suzanne Brindamour. “Cer­tainly, we’ve re­ceived many things from mu­si­cians them­selves but we’ve had to dig for archival el­e­ments. ”

“How to fit it all in is the chal­lenge,” she added. “There were so many great sto­ries. With so many great gui­tar play­ers, we are afraid of leav­ing some­thing out.

“We wish we could do an en­tire se­ries on Wash­ing­ton mu­sic.”

CLAU­DIO VAZQUEZ

ABOVE: Gui­tar le­gend Danny Gat­ton re­ferred to the D.C. re­gion as the “Ana­cos­tia Delta,” as the home to a par­tic­u­lar style of blues. RIGHT: Chick Hall Jr., far left, Tom Prin­ci­pato, Frankie She­gogue and An­thony Pirog per­form in the documentary “Ana­cos­tia Delta: Home of the World's Great ‘Un­known’ Gui­tarists.”

JEROMIE STEPHENS

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