With testimony from rock and jazz guitar gods, the publicity materials for the British finger-style guitarist Adrian Legg makes him out to be a dazzling virtuoso–which, to be sure, he is. But he’s more about complexity than about speed, and the first thing you need to know about an Adrian Legg concert is that it’s close to the quiet end of the spectrum of musical dynamics that runs from a solitary Chinese zither to a London techno club at three in the morning. Among his music’s many virtues is that it dials the volume level down and creates the right space for Legg’s subtle, quintessentially British humor.
Legg started out playing country music in Britain and Ireland, and he once observed that the experience left him with “an alcohol problem and a completely unwearable collection of shirts.” Many of his wry tales of life on the road were featured in a delightful set of commentaries on NPR some years ago. But his humor is never sharp-edged, and it shades off not into dissatisfaction but into lyricism. At a recent Ark show he introduced one piece with the observation that the waltz is the ultimate expression of human happiness.
Country is by now just one strand in Legg’s uncategorizable musical mosaic, which involves a good deal of classical guitar technique and an extensive use of harmonics and alternate tunings. There’s a really uncanny effect in which a cluster of tones is brought together in such a way as to make the acoustic guitar sound like an electric instrument. The quiet, quasi-improvisatory quality of the music has led to his being given the New Age label, but he doesn’t accept it, and it’s not a good one–the state of mind the listener enters when he plays is not meditative but hyper-aware. Nearly all his music is original, and the way it matches overall structure to finely wrought detail is profound. He usually wears an in-ear monitor, entering his own world when he plays and drawing the audience in with him.
Adrian Legg never bowls you over with acrobatics or speed, but upon leaving his performance space you have an unusually strong sensation of returning to the everyday world from an utterly charmed realm. Legg is a virtuoso whose powers are all the more impressive because he works in no fixed tradition. He returns to the Ark on April 12.