The California Guitar Trio, returning Tuesday to Barking Legs Theater, are three of the best guitarists that, odds are, you’ve never heard. That’s partly because these world-class musicians are remarkably self-effacing. They don’t have a promotional team hyping their concerts. They don’t make million-selling albums. And yet whenever they play anywhere in the world they rarely fail to excite audiences with their dynamic intensity. They give very little credence to showbiz and its conventions because their only concern is the music—about that they are passionate.
You can listen to any of their albums in their entirety on their website (cgtrio.com) for free, but looking for information on them on the site is fruitless. Click on their biography and you’ll be re-directed to a Wikipedia article about them. Perhaps, as a reviewer quoted on their website suggests, they enjoy the kind of open-mouthed reaction they get from new audiences.
“Half of the fun of a concert by The California Guitar Trio,” he wrote, “comes from scanning the reactions of patrons witnessing the group for the first time.”
It’s the only concert review on the website, and as they’ve played hundreds of shows since forming in 1991 you have to wonder why. I think it’s because they’re passionate about playing together, even after 20 years, and they’re content to let the audience find them.
“In any given tour we may find ourselves playing a festival for several thousands of people (like last year in Quebec City), and the next week we might play a small club on a Monday evening for a handful of people,” guitarist Bert Lams said.
If there was ever any doubt that they are in it for everything but the money, that comment serves to dispel them.
The three musicians met in England where they’d all gone to study with Robert Fripp. Fripp is probably best known, if he’s known at all, as the mastermind behind King Crimson. Nominally a rock band, King Crimson took music to places others may have imagined, but very few had the chops to take it.
In the mid-1980s, after disbanding one of the more celebrated incarnations of Crimson featuring the guitarist Adrian Belew and bassist Tony Levin, Fripp began teaching and touring with some of his students, calling the band The League of Crafty Guitarists. Lams, Paul Richards and Hideyo Moriya were among the first crafty guitarists and spent several years in the late ’80s touring with Fripp.
All three were already accomplished players when they joined Fripp’s class in 1987. Moriya, born in Tokyo, loved The Ventures and began playing surf music when he was 12. By the time he joined Fripp he’d been playing for nearly two decades. Lams had been playing for more than a decade, including six years studying classical technique at the Royal Conservatory of Music in his native Brussels. Richards, who was only 21 when he joined the class, had already been playing for eight years.
When The League of Crafty Guitarists disbanded in 1990, Richards, Lams and Moriya bonded and banded together, moving to Los Angeles, where they began playing anywhere they could as The California Guitar Trio.
Their repertoire, then as now, was an eclectic mix. Moriya is still a surf guitar fan. He’s the one responsible for the inclusion of vintage classics like The Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run” and “Pipeline” in their repertoire. Richards is a rocker whose early influences included Jimmy Page and is behind the inclusion of their covers of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Michael Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells.”
So while they may be playing acoustic guitars, the trio has all of the power and intensity of an electric rock band.
“My feeling about technique in art,” wrote John Barth, “is that it has about the same value as technique in lovemaking, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill; but what you want is passionate virtuosity.”
He could have been talking about The California Guitar Trio.
The California Guitar Trio
7:30 p.m. • Tuesday, Feb. 5 • Barking Legs Theater • 1307 Dodds Ave. • (423) 624-5347 • barkinglegs.org
Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.