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[whitespace] Classical Pass

Virtuoso guitarist Michael Chapdelaine branches out to a host of new styles

By Marianne Messina

LATELY, talking to award-winning guitarist Michael Chapdelaine is like talking to someone with a new lease on life. "Oh man, I'm just exploding," Chapdelaine says, referring to the many directions his work is taking. He talks as if he is finally free of his early career which was--by all accounts except Chapdelaine's--stellar. He plays with a tone that evokes comparisons to Andres Segovia. Dan Roest, artistic director for the South Bay Guitar Society, heard Chapdelaine's latest CD and knew he had to bring Chapdelaine to San Jose. "As a guitarist I was captivated by the technique," Roest explains. "Michael has the kind of tone that any classical guitarist would be proud of. It's a full, fat, beautiful, clean sound." This weekend, Chapdelaine will perform a concert sponsored by the South Bay Guitar Society as part of the Downtown Arts Series.

Through the '80s and early '90s, Chapdelaine, his nylon-stringed guitar and age-old music were a winning ticket in the classical world. He won contests by the Guitar Foundation of America and the Music Teachers National Association; he won two National Endowment for the Arts Solo Recitalist Grants; he won a silver medal in Venezuela's Concurso Internacional Aliria Diaz. "I was just a straight-ahead B-flat classical guitarist," Chapdelaine laments of his award-winning self. That was before Chapdelaine's Guitar by Moonlight, a Time-Life recording of pop love songs, began to sell in the hundreds of thousands. At the same time, it was a year of such pain for Michael Chapdelaine that it changed his life.

"This problem came along which had to do with pain and weakness in my hands. Time that I could spend with the guitar became a premium; at some points it was no time and for a while it was an hour a day instead of the traditional five or six hours. I decided during that time that I really didn't want to hammer away at the same old tunes that everybody's already played a billion times. So that's when I started composing. It was the best thing that ever happened."

Chapdelaine believes that "the idea of changing becomes frightening, so you just stick with what you do until something comes along and knocks the hell out of you and says you can't do that anymore." In his case, the years of pain that threw his life into crippling uncertainty yielded the compositions on Land of Enchantment, the recording that so captivated Roest. "I heard something unique and fresh," Roest recounts. "Chapdelaine was somebody that had a pop and blues awareness and a natural inventiveness that most classical guitarists don't have."

The songs give expression to influences at work in Chapdelaine's early life, influences like country, blues and rock, which now boldly insinuate themselves into his live performances--he plays on steel strings, uses an amplifier, and likes it loud.

Part of the classical guitarist's new approach to performance was born "out in a cornfield in Kansas" at the 1998 Fingerpicking Championships, where crowds just wanted to hear good music. Later, it was fingerpicker Muriel Anderson who gave him a fiery onstage baptism into improvisation. "You'll think this is really stupid," he confesses, "but I learned from Muriel and a few others in that world: Play something [the audience] knows."

In the two short years since his win at the Fingerpicking Championships, Chapdelaine has written scores for TV documentaries and has started to work up his singing voice. Recently he followed the fingerpickers' lead and started adding popular songs to his repertoire. "I've never done that. I think the first time I ever did it was just last month. In Italy. I played this medley of surf guitar tunes, 'Secret Agent,' 'Wipeout." The medley was so successful that now there is no stopping him. Two weeks before touring the West Coast, Chapdelaine reported "working like a dog on a Bill Withers cover," not to mention planning work on a whole series of Motown tunes. He has promised to bring the "Wipeout" medley with him to San Jose. But the question is, does he play the drum solo? "Of course," Chapdelaine quips. "With one hand."

Michael Chapdelaine plays Saturday, Feb. 24, at 8pm at the Stage, 490 S. First St, San Jose. Tickets are $12. (408.283.7142)

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From the February 22-28, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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