Spirit-bending strings

Stellar guitarist Phil Keaggy is no secret to Christian rock fans, or to secular guitar aficionados

Phil Keaggy, posing in the studio in that serious-musician pose.

Phil Keaggy, posing in the studio in that serious-musician pose.

Photo By Jim McGuire

7:30 p.m. Thursday, August 14; at the Crest Theatre, 1013 K Street; reserved seating; $20-$25.

Sports 1140 KHTK announcer Jim Kozimor may not be known as a rock critic. But there he was on his evening radio show, toward the end of the NBA season last April, shooting the breeze about rock ’n’ roll trivia.

At one point, he asked, “Who’s that Christian guitarist?”

Kozimor went on to describe a tale often recited by fans of Christian rock. Supposedly, someone once asked Jimi Hendrix what it felt like to be the world’s greatest guitarist. “I dunno,” Hendrix, who died in 1970, is said to have replied. “Ask …”

And what was that name? Finally, Kozimor came up with it.

Phil Keaggy.

However, according to Keaggy, contacted by phone this week as he was driving back to his Nashville home from Atlanta, the story is an urban legend. “That is a false rumor,” Keaggy confessed. “[Hendrix] never really did say anything. It started with one guy who said, ‘I’m gonna kind of stretch things here. But, not because of my fame or reputation, but because of Jimi Hendrix’s, it took off.”

Keaggy added, “The rumor has never been verified over 33 years by audio or video, so we just let it go.”

No matter. The point of the tale is that Keaggy is a guitarist good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as, oh, Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Richard Thompson and a few other better-known masters of the guitar. And he certainly is.

Keaggy, who plays the Crest Theatre on Thursday, August 14, entered the public consciousness in 1970 as a member of the Youngstown, Ohio, power trio Glass Harp, when the first of three albums released by Decca Records (later known as MCA, now known as Geffen) came out. “We were all in various stages of our walk and journey, in terms of our faith. So, I left the band in ’72 to pursue a more solo representation of my faith and music. But we’re all brothers together these days; we have really good times together.”

After Glass Harp faded into obscurity—it has since reformed, and most of the 70 to 80 dates a year Keaggy plays are with the group—Keaggy became well-known as the guy defenders of contemporary Christian music (CCM) would trot out to demonstrate that, hey, El Diablo really didn’t get all the good music. Much of Keaggy’s catalog of vocal and instrumental music was released by Christian record labels, a fact he now finds somewhat limiting.

“In terms of CCM,” he elaborated, “I’m pretty much on the tail end of that whole era in my life. To me, it’s all music, and I wanted to be more of a mainstream musician because I think God is mainstream. I don’t think you can box him, and I don’t think you can categorize where his heart and spirit go. And I like to play for people and not have it segregated into one genre.

“Of course, I’m 52 now,” he added, “and I love whatever audience we get.”

Keaggy seems to be that kind of pure musician who’s perfectly comfortable with just about any genre of music, an omnivorous music hound who can leap from Bach to Ali Farka Toure to Maybelle Carter to such underappreciated string-benders as Tony Rice and Laurence Juber. Keaggy even admitted to liking textural electronic music and said he has a soft spot for the Icelandic musical sprite Björk.

According to Keaggy, his solo performances are built around what he describes as “effects, loops and stuff,” centered around him playing an electrified acoustic. “I make as much noise as I can with one guitar,” he explained. He doesn’t use a drum machine; his use of electronic technology is more free-flowing. “If I create a loop, it’ll be something I do on the spot,” he said.

“If people come and they like what they hear,” Keaggy concluded, “and they get something out of it from a musical standpoint, as well as encouragement of the spirituality in their lives, that’s really great for me. That’s what I’m about.”