The guitar maestro gives a finger-picking masterclass at the Black Box
In modern times, fingerstyle guitarists such as Stanley Jordan, Andy McKee and Michael Hedges have inspired legions of followers. In reality though, the combination of finger-picking and mining the percussive possibilities of the guitar is as old as the proverbial hills, and common in most world folk music.
Nevertheless, The Green Room at the Black Box is fortunate to be hosting two of the style’s youngest, brightest exponents in Justin Dowling and headliner Chris Woods. Both guitarists share stylistic roots, although their respective vocabulary is quite distinct.
Featuring songs from his debut album, With Daylight Still to Spare, and newer material, Limerick man Dowling’s musical palette ranges from Paul Brady-inspired lyricism to thrash-folk.
Dowling’s more delicate two-handed fretboard articulations on tunes like 'Passages' and the American traditional tune 'The Lakes of Ponchartrain' are not helped by dodgy amplification that eats up the bottom end, and a vociferous audience that wins the battle of the acoustics.
Perhaps for this reason, Dowling tailors his set in favor of his punkish, thrash-folk repertoire. Slapping and knocking the guitar’s body or strumming the fretboard with the fervor of a flamenco guitarist, he weaves and bobs on the stage with the energy of a rave dancer.
With little stylistic variation in the sonic assault, the most striking material is that which breaks the mold – the anthemic 'Caught inside the Rapids', for example, which mutates from whispered breeze to roaring gale, reveals a singer/songwriter of some talent – a distinctive voice.
In a relatively short time, Chris Woods has garnered glowing international reviews for his dazzling technique. However, it’s clear within the first bars of his opening number tonight that his virtuosity is tempered by an innate musicality. Veena-like bending notes are followed by a delicate Oriental voicing – a delightfully roundabout intro to a simple country-folk amble.
'Fred the Cat' underscores what a highly rhythmic player Woods is, too. He uses the entire body of his 000x1 Martin guitar for subtle percussive effect, with a stomp box adding bass pulse. The groove-based 'Rolling Hills' pays homage to Woods' childhood turf of Devon and Cornwall. Delicate arpeggios and melodic motifs alternate with bluesy licks and foot-stomping rhythms.
'Return' follows a similar blueprint. It is propulsive and highly melodic. Here, Woods employs all manner of deft accents. Bodily effluent and drunken violence spewing from an Exmouth nightclub provides the inspiration for the punchy 'Nightlife'. A skeletal structure and repetitive figures are perhaps suggestive of the monotony of nightclub shenanigans.
The audience chatter is too loud to pick out the title of the next song, nor is the general hubbub conducive to fully appreciating Woods' light touches and fleet, sophisticated fingering. A broken string forces Woods to borrow Dowling’s guitar, and following a quick guide to tunings, Woods closes out with a blues-tinged toe-tapper.
It's a short number that abruptly gathers tub-thumping pace amidst a blur of strum and slap, and is another example of Woods’ invention, which places him among the top rank of fingerstyle guitarists. He has played the Black Box before, and with luck, might do so again. That would give a few folk another chance to really listen to this outstanding six-string conjurer.