Steel twangers play festival

A musical extravaganza spanning four countries in two continents will hit Laxson Auditorium Saturday night when the Men of Steel follow up last year’s performance for the Eighth Annual International Guitar Festival.

The four-man group will have two performances to benefit Northstate Public Radio KCHO and KFPR.

“We’re a non-profit radio station,” said Jack Brown, KCHO general manager. “We only do a couple of these events a year and they provide important funds we wouldn’t have.”

The steel-string guitar band isn’t just the headline act for the festival — it’s the only act.

The diversity of their musical background makes the $16 student ticket price worthwhile.

“I’m someone who hit my head when I was a child so I went into flatpicking,” Dan Crary said.

Crary hails from Kansas where he first picked up flatpicking, a guitar technique where the pick plays the lower notes between the index finger and thumb while the middle and ring fingers play the middle notes.

He started playing in 1952, when the large-body, steel-string guitar was mostly a background instrument in country music. It was later popularized when Elvis Presley made an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Crary found music to be a great unifier despite people’s different backgrounds and philosophies.

“In Europe, during our election season, there was an unpopular sentiment about (American) politics and trade policy,” Crary said. “They were there for the music, though”

From that side of the Atlantic Ocean is Scotsman Tony McManus, the man respected by many for his ability to bring the guitar into Celtic music. He’s been able to translate bagpipe and fiddle tunes on his six-string guitar. His busy schedule left him unavailable for comment.

A little further south is the soft-spoken Italian flatpicker Beppe Gambetta. Thinking about the first guitar he saw and heard on the streets of Genoa still leaves him nearly speechless.

“Beppe brings a European sensibility to Americana and folk music,” Don Ross said.

Ross is the fourth member of Men of Steel and is the only two-time U.S. National Fingerstyle Guitar Champion. Ross said what he plays is popular but “you can’t define it as Americana or folk, though it’s mostly funk and exploring new sounds”

“I do this modern Canadian fingerstyle thing,” Ross said. “I’ve kind of tried to develop a very individual style.”

When the four come together though, they lay their differences aside. “Everyone has a good sense on how to collaborate,” Ross said.

“We are planning to do a fun (concert),” Gambetta said. “The only problem is some of the guys are so funny we have a hard time practicing.”

Why would such an internationally-renowned group of musicians come to Chico when Redding is just up the road and San Francisco is a few freeways away?

“Chico and I are old friends,” Ross said. “It has so many savvy people from the university and it has enough hipness even when the students aren’t here. They have a more adventurous taste in music.”

“For a city of (Chico’s) size, it is amazing how many people are into the music,” Crary said. “Dan DeWayne creates an audience where every time we play it’s sold out and the crowd is there to hear some good guitar.”

DeWayne, director of University Public Events, has some ties dating back to before his days at Chico.

“I put on music festivals in one of my other lives,” DeWayne said.

He met Crary in 1982 and the rest of the group through a series of other festivals.

“When they play together, extraordinary things happen musically,” DeWayne said.

Before their performance in Laxson Auditorium, Men of Steel will host a guitar workshop where they will demonstrate and discuss their art.

“It’s a great opportunity for anyone interested in string instruments — specifically guitars,” DeWayne said.

Crary summed up the performance for those who missed it last year.

He said, “We fly faster than a speeding bullet, we’re slower than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”

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