Guitar Masters tour makes stop at Englert

BY EVAN CLARK | OCTOBER 07, 2010 7:20 AM

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In a time of button-pushing, controller-clutching wannabe rock stars who live out their fret-shredding fantasies in front of a television screen, it’s a relief knowing there are some crusaders who can live up to the title Guitar Hero.

Today’s performance at the Englert, 221 E. Washington St., marks the fourth stop on the Guitar Masters, featuring performances by Grammy-winning guitar legend Eric Johnson, Ittouralian acoustic-guitarist Peppino D’Agostino, and YouTube video sensation Andy McKee. The show will begin at 8 p.m.; admission is $30.

Englert Theatre Executive Director Andre Perry said the concert will be a show to remember for guitar lovers in Iowa City.

“This is a pretty interesting tour, to say the least,” he said. “We’re bringing together three guys who have never toured together, but they’re loved by guitar enthusiasts all over the world. They all have their own styles, and whenever you have an opportunity to book get three guys at the top of their craft, of course, we’re going to try to get them together for a show.”

When it comes to the art of guitar playing, few have arguably accomplished the feats that instrumental-guitar phenomenon Johnson has. Named by Guitar World magazine as one of the most respected guitar players on the planet, his career has been going strong for 40 years and shows no signs of letting up. With his eighth album due out in early November and an acoustic record on the way, Johnson’s roots with guitar began with the man many call “The King.”

“Originally, when I was a little kid, I heard Elvis on the radio, and my first thought was, ‘Wow, whatever rock ’n’ rolls is, it’s cool,’ ” Johnson said. “Then I got older, and I started drifting off toward surf music, then the ’60s rock bands such as the Yardbirds, Rolling Stones, Clapton, and Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and I just became totally in awe with the whole thing. But once I heard someone play guitar, I just completely gravitated to that sound.”

Johnson has been recording since the late-60s, and he has collaborated with such prominent artists as Cat Stevens and Christopher Cross. He has also been featured on the epic guitar legends G3 tour with guitar players Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.

“I think it’s like sometimes when you read a book instead of seeing the movie,” Johnson said. “It leaves a lot to your imagination, and people can interpret my music however they envision it. It makes the music more focused into what it is, leaving the listener to envision the piece with his own imagination.”

Lately, he has been featured on two of the Guitar Hero video games, on which players can unlock his songs and jam along. Although the exposure allowed him to explore a younger audience, he realizes the possibility that the guitar’s position in music may be slowly running its course.

“I think guitar has become something more of an appliance today,” he said. “Practically everybody has heard what it sounds like, and I think it’s hard for future artists to turn heads and have people saying, ‘Oh that’s new.’ Hopefully, somebody will come along at some point and recreate some elements on guitar.”

Italian acoustic soloist D’Agostino is universally a “eroe della chitarra” (guitar hero in Italian) in the truest sense. His instrumental acoustic music blends traditional Italian guitar playing with a Californian flavor he learned when he moved to San Francisco.

Guitar Player magazine named him the Best Acoustic Guitarist of 2007. His 2002 album, Every Step of the Way, won a bronze medal for Best Acoustic Album of All-Time, and his latest record, his 14th, Nine White Kites, was released earlier this year.

Another prospect to change the guitar game is Kansas native and fingerpicking guitarist McKee, who burst onto the guitar scene with a little help from a big source.

“I was teaching guitar in Kansas for about 10 years,” he said. “Teaching was my main gig until 2006, when we first put some videos of me playing my songs on YouTube, and it started getting a lot of attention.”

The video of his playing his song “Drifting” in his room has accumulated more than 35 million hits on YouTube since its début, as well as spawning many other successful guitar-playing videos. He credits his fingerpicking as sparking people’s curiosity.

“My videos feature me playing guitar in an unusual way, plus a lot of people have never paid any attention to acoustic solo guitar,” McKee said. “Now, I’ve been touring all over the world, and I play guitar for living, which is something I’m grateful for.”

His first love, teaching guitar, will stick.

“I still do guitar workshops and master classes; I just love teaching and showing people the different things you can do with the guitar,” he said. “I hope to put out a whole instructional DVD later this year.”

But neither 35 million hits on YouTube nor promoting instructional DVDs could outshine his sharing the stage with one of his idols on the Guitar Masters tour.

“Getting a chance to play with Eric, I have to admit, it’s pretty amazing,” McKee said. “I was heavily influenced by him growing up, so I’m trying not to be too big of a fan on this tour. Bottom line, it’s just a huge honor to be on the same bill as Eric and Peppino.”

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