A new venue! And two fantastic musicians to open the 10th season!
The St. Lawrence Acoustic Stage kicks off its 2015-16 concert series in its new location at Upper Canada Playhouse, on Saturday, October 10, at 7 p.m. Ushering in this new chapter for the Stage, will be “two of Canada’s (arguably two of the world’s) finest fingerstyle guitarists”, Don Ross and Calum Graham, according to Sandra Whitworth of the SLAS board. “(On our website for this show) we have a quote from Frederic Chopin. ‘Nothing is more beautiful than a guitar, except, possibly, two.’”
I caught up with Don Ross (who performed at the Stage to a sold out audience in 2012) as he was en route to Vancouver for a concert. The only person ever to win the US National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship twice, Ross is a performer whose exuberance and artistry on stage can make you feel there is an entire orchestra up there with him. “That’s really the great thing about the guitar,” Ross laughed. “It allows you to create multiple parts so you can ‘be an orchestra.’ I’m bringing two guitars to Morrisburg, and possibly also a harp guitar.”
Ross is an artist with a huge international fan bass, whose music is flavoured by blues, jazz, folk and classical influences. Winner of numerous awards and honours, and a master class teacher who makes a point of mentoring the next generation of guitarists, he has released several outstanding albums to critical and popular acclaim. “Working as a solo artist is in some ways easier. It’s smart fiscally because you keep expenses down and can put your earnings back into the music and into touring. (‘I’m doing well as a musician. I’m not going to make the Fortune 500, but maybe I’ll make the Freedom 105 list,’ he laughed in an aside). As a solo act, you don’t have to be top 40 material where massive numbers of people like you for about five minutes, then forget you. And the popularity of what you can do with the guitar has spiked since YouTube arrived. I have always been in this for the long haul, doing what I love, developing my music and my career.”
However, in the last years, Ross has begun to work with other artists in musical collaborations. He created 2013’s incredible 12:34 release with Calum Graham. “I do find that I am enjoying collaborations very much, and Calum is a great and talented player. He came to me (in 2013) with some of his writing, and asked if I would work with him on some duets. I heard his demo and was very impressed. I want to hear great music, and he has a strong sense of melody and harmony. 12:34 came out of that collaboration.”
Ross’ own music is always exciting, always fresh, always unique. “I keep my ears open,” he said. “I try to be constantly aware of what is going on musically around me, listening to other musicians and to their opinions. There really is room for innovative music, and focussing only on one type of music is limiting. I find that I keep getting excited all over again about my music just by keeping my ears open and really listening. And I am fulfilling a life long fantasy to see the world and make music: well, mine is a great job.”
Music is also at the centre of Calum Graham’s world. “I give music my all. My passion and focus is music. There really is no Plan B for my life.”
Like Don, Calum was also on the road on tour in northern Alberta (in the family ‘Grahamwagon’ he laughed) when I contacted him.
As a teenager, he chose fingerstyle guitar as his musical focus shortly after hearing Don Ross’ Bearing Straight. “I was completely turned on to the acoustic guitar,” Calum recalled. “Everything has gone on from there.”
A poet whose 2011 work won Canada’s Walk of Fame I’m Here (A Song for Canada), and a composer, Calum released his first album in 2009 when he was just 17. In 2010, he won the Canadian Fingerstyle Guitar Competition, the only teenager to ever do so. His album Phoenix Rising was released online in 2013.
“When I write,” he said, “my ideas are taken from life, from my experiences and my journeys. I often find that I have a song in my head that just has to come out. Some songs can write themselves so that you almost feel you’re channeling the music. These are the best songs, the most powerful ones I think. Ideas come in different ways at different times: there are no limits on inspiration.”
He describes Don Ross as his musical inspiration and mentor. “In 2010, when I won the Guitar Competiton, Don was one of the judges although I didn’t know that. He talked to me later and told me he was impressed with my music. I sent him some compositions two years ago, we talked, and we decided to collaborate on an album. (12:34) I’ve also toured with him. Don’s been in this crazy business for years, and I take his wisdom to help me navigate through this life.”
As well as touring, a band project is in the works for Calum, featuring a drummer and other backup musicians: he wants to explore some new musical venues in the future. “I consider myself a singer, and my next album will be full vocal. I want to move forward with instrumental and vocal music: I love to do both.”
Both Don Ross and Calum Graham say that their Morrisburg concert will feature duets from albums like 12:34, with solo numbers mixed in. “We stay on stage together,” Ross said, “which is nice for audiences, because it means lots of musical variety.”
The St. Lawrence Acoustic Stage welcomes everyone to their new venue at Upper Canada Playhouse on Saturday, October 10, and their first show of the 2015-16 season. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Contact http://www.st-lawrencestage.com/shows.html.