Any given Friday

French guitarist plays his fingernails off for tiny crowd

The art of fingerstyle guitar at 1078 Gallery with Claude Bourbon.

The art of fingerstyle guitar at 1078 Gallery with Claude Bourbon.

Photo By Melanie MacTavish

Claude Bourbon, Friday, April 5, at 1078 Gallery.

1078 Gallery
820 Broadway

On any given night, there is so much going on in our fair city that it can be daunting. A cursory glance at the CN&R’s calendar section offers so many options in the town’s coffee shops, bars, galleries and other venues that it’s sometimes hard to pick a place to start. Sometimes, it’s nice to just give something random a shot.

I did exactly this last Friday (April 5), opting to check out visiting guitarist Claude Bourbon at 1078 Gallery based solely on a short description of his music as “Spanish and Medieval blues.” Friday nights are a valuable commodity, and gambling with them in such a manner can sometimes backfire; but with Bourbon, I hit the jackpot.

Bourbon is a French-born guitarist classically trained in Switzerland and whose influences reach far beyond. Within moments of him picking up his guitar it was apparent that I and the few others who took the same gamble—an audience of 14 in total, including me and gallery staff—were in for a treat.

It was initially hard to tell where one song ended and another began, with Bourbon utilizing a variety of techniques and styles to take the small crowd on a musical journey through some fantastic places. In the first 10 minutes alone, flamenco, gypsy-jazz and Indian influences were evident, as was a touch of good old Southern blues and Americana. It’s also quite apparent Bourbon is a Jimmy Page devotee, with some of his songs possessing a similar feel to Page’s spotlight numbers (think “White Summer”/“Black Mountain Side”).

While weaving disparate styles can be disastrous and not at all interesting in less competent hands, Bourbon pulled it off seamlessly. In fact, deciding which hand to watch was part of the fun of the performance; Bourbon’s left hand slid up and down the fretboard while all five fingers of his right flowed like rippling water as he fingerpicked with amazing speed. Early in the set he also added in some slide, and he managed to pack in more tricks and incredibly varied techniques into every single song.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show was the way Bourbon played his travel-worn Gibson. He didn’t play the guitar like a normal performer, but rather played parts of it that wouldn’t even occur to most players. For example, at several points he would actually press hard on the soundboard or crank hard on the top of the neck to create bends accomplished only by the best bluesmen.

Though most of the performance was instrumental, Bourbon can also sing, his voice something like latter-day Dylan with a French accent, smooth with just a tinge of soulful raspiness. In Bourbon’s hands, even standards sound not-so-standard—his 10-minute-plus version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” was epic, even though the lyrics were the only recognizable part (“Summertime and the livin’ is easy …”). One particular standout original was the desperate-sounding and creepy bluesy number “I Need Shelter.”

Though I like and respect great guitar playing, I’m not usually a fan of the super technical; too often, great technical skill can lead to scale-monsterism and self-indulgent wankery, resulting in music that’s flat and lacks passion. But not so with Bourbon; the man has soul. He’s also not afraid to get a little sloppy and gritty, basking in his guitar’s natural distortion, plucking the bass strings harder than most and all around letting himself have a good time.

This was Bourbon’s third local visit. It’s a shame more people weren’t there to appreciate it. It didn’t seem to matter to him as he played with such gusto he had to cut the show short when he broke a fingernail, an essential accessory to a fingerstyle player who doesn’t use picks. There are at least 14 people, I’m fairly certain, eagerly awaiting his next visit.