El McMeen and Larry Pattis

(From the Archives, July 2001)

One man’s word on…

El McMeen and Larry Pattis in Concert, Mountain Lakes, New Jersey





Sunday evening I had the good fortune to witness a couple of very fine Martins in concert with the even finer musicians who were playing them. As some of you may know, long-time fingerstyle guru El McMeen and his touring partner, Larry Pattis, have recently taken up rosewood Martin OMs as their guitars of public display. I was granted an intimate hearing of these fine instruments from the front row of the little church auditorium, some 40 minutes into New Jersey from the George Washington Bridge.

Mr. Pattis was the first performer of the evening but represented the latter half of a program entitled “Guitar Odyssey: Celtic to Contemporary”. His set consisted of eight well-rendered instrumental pieces in a variety of alternate tunings. Although his long-time friend Pierre Bensusan has said that each of Larry’s tunes “is like a private conversation”, Pattis was happy to preface each piece with an anecdote or two that clued the audience in on the motivation behind each composition. Leo Kottke could take a tip from Larry Pattis here, as this simple device helped focus the listeners’ imagination as we lilted our way though sweet scented mists under the Carolina moon found on “The Paths of Swannanoa”, or tried to keep up with the joyful mischief of a prancing, Labrador retriever, vigorously slapping his tail across the opening number called “Buddy Boy”

Larry Pattis is a disciplined guitarist who combined an obvious classical training and five-fret stretch with a love of free form tonal exploration and alternate tunings, at one point employing a partial capo, to compose pieces that were both lyric and inventive. Although a good portion of his set was on the relaxed side he managed to maintain a harmonic tension that allowed his slower pieces to come off as expansive and open rather than sluggish or plodding. His use of well placed low notes, punctuated with pert treble flourishes, took full advantage of the first class bass response and hanging sustain of his auditorium size guitar, made all the fuller by the B-Band pickup though which he was amplified for the crowd of some 100 people

On the upbeat side was the unabashedly sentimental “Nonpareil” inspired by Mr. Pattis’ childhood relationship with his sister, and the up again down again rhythmic surprises of “Random Chance”. But my personal favorite was the title piece of his new CD “Hands of Time”. The album cover features hand tracings found in the prehistoric, Anastazi Indian sites of Southern Utah. The composition itself managed to capture the mysterious “someone’s looking over your shoulder” feeling brought on by a visit to one of those desolate places which was once home to a vanished people. It could have just as easily been named for Ankor Wat or Stone Hendge

After seven original tunes and a similar number of funny stories Mr. Pattis ended his portion of the evening with a novel arrangement of Jay Ungar’s “Ashoken Farewell”, the fiddle tune made famous as the theme to Ken Burns’ Civil War series. Although the tune was recognizable, Pattis chose to present the piece as several series of unusual chord voicings, bound together with thin lines of the original melody. It was here that the influence of Mr. McMeen was most noticeable, as he has a long history of transcribing linear fiddle tunes to the more complex matrix of the acoustic guitar. The over all effect of this arrangement was that of a familiar tune taken to new ground. It seemed to fit perfectly well amongst the vistas and private gardens of Larry Pattis’ original compositions

The second half of the evening was like a family reunion. As it turned out, this particular performance was a benefit for the host venue, the Community Church of Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, which just happens to be the town El McMeen calls home. Earlier that day I was lamenting the lost chance to see these two guitarists on the previous Saturday night, at a full fledged “arts center”. This was quickly remedied by the intimacy of Larry Pattis’ performance and then, following the intermission, I was treated like a guest in someone’s parlor as I joined a close knit community in celebrating one of its own. Respected around the music world, Mel Bay author El McMeen has spent years recording and publishing the traditional Irish and Scottish folk melodies that he has arranged and transcribed for the solo guitar. Tonight he joked, recited, and performed selections hand-picked for an audience with which he was truly on a first name basis

McMeen is perhaps most well known for popularizing the Celtic “Low C” tuning (CGDGAD). Although the likes of Chris Proctor, Alex de Grassi and Laurence Juber have all composed in this tuning, few people transcribe pre-existing music into it. Certainly, no one has gotten as much mileage out of it as El McMeen. He used it throughout his set – typically with a capo at the 2nd or 4th fret

As the self proclaimed “Celtic portion of the evening”, McMeen opened with a medley of two traditional folk tunes, “Jock O’Hazeldean” and ” Castle of Dromore”. The jaunt and step of such music told the audience that they were in for a journey to vistas quite a bit different than those they experienced earlier in the evening. However, this was followed by a haunting tune that made one feel that Mr. McMeen has been as influenced by Mr. Pattis as the other way around. He introduced the piece by saying a friend had asked if El would learn his favorite Irish melody. McMeen responded with a silent “Please don’t say Danny Boy!” Of course it was. As El McMeen tells it, he learned to see “Danny Boy” as a song people should not be listening to as elevator music, but rather, one which should only be performed to tell a story. Taking his cue from the Celtic Harper, Kim Robertson, McMeen’s arrangement of “Danny Boy” is as sad and arresting as it is lush and beautiful. He truly managed to breathe a new Irish spring into a well roasted chestnut

What followed was a piper’s jig called “Turf Lodge” that showed off some of McMeen’s most athletic fingerpicking and then he played his only original of the night. “Song for Sheila” was written for his wife and made one wonder if El McMeen might have been misdirecting much of his talent all these years. It was a beautiful, little tune that went right to the heart strings and stands up to anything Martin Simpson or Leo Kottke has come up with. I hope to learn it as soon as the TAB is made available

McMeen is as much a folklorist as he is a folk guitarist. For every number played there was a full explanation of its origin and why it was chosen to be performed or recorded. He is particularly fond of short fiddle or bagpipe dance tunes because of their wide range of emotion and expressive outbursts, all compacted into a brief period of time – so brief, in fact, that he often combines them into medleys. This was the case with the hornpipe “The Rights of Man”, which he blended with the Irish jig “Kid on the Mountain”. Another favorite area of folk music for Mr. McMeen is spiritual-oriented hymns and gospel. This was represented very well by a rendition of a song Emmylou Harris recorded called “Drifting Too Far From the Shore”. His arrangement provided an excellent opportunity for chords left to ring out in extended sustains and developed the kind of harmonic tensions between the bass and trebles found in many of Mr. Pattis’ compositions

After a well received combo of the pop tunes “My Girl” and “Stand By Me”, McMeen returned to his forte of traditional folk melodies to close out his portion of the show. He spoke beforehand of how his community of Mountain Lakes had been profoundly and directly affected by the tragic events of September 11th and then proceeded to play a medley of two tunes written about heroes from previous eras, Stan Roger’s “MacDonnell on the Heights” and J. S. Skinner’s “Hector the Hero”

To close out the program El McMeen asked a local singer, Robin Totillo, to join him on the platform to perform the only vocal numbers of the evening. These were the hymn “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart” and the spiritual “Give Me Jesus”. The statuesque Ms. Totillo sang with the joy of a faithful parishioner as Mr. McMeen provided accompaniment that was appropriately subdued and did not overshadow or conflict with the simplicity of the songs

El McMeen plays a stock OM-28V, that has the addition of a modern, drop-in saddle and a wooden armrest attached to the top where his right elbow sits. Due to his personal acquaintance with the audience I only got to speak with him briefly before I left. However, at the intermission I was able to get in a pretty good chat with Larry Pattis and to check out the Custom Martin he found pre-ordered at First Quality Musical Supply (http://fqms.com). It is also made in Vintage Style 28, only with a slotted headstock and a cutaway body – and a fine job on the herringbone where the cutaway meets the neck. The guitar was also made without a pickguard and Larry had the tuners replaced with very attractive ones that had black hardware and dark wooden buttons. The neck felt a little rounder than many Martin OM Vs and he had the bridge reworked so that the string spacing had been reduced from 2 5/16″ to 2 1/4″. The bridge had also been retrofitted with a drop-in saddle that looked like alabaster and was made out of “some kind of fossilized something”

Larry’s Martin had the B-Band bridge plate pickup and El’s had the B-Band saddle pickup blended with an internal condenser mike. Although Larry Pattis got a pretty good tone out of his rig, El McMeen’s guitar just sounded more “acoustic”. I would attribute this to the mini-mike. Unfortunately McMeen appeared to have some problems with the EQ balance. He sounded perfect when playing softly, but his treble strings seemed to vanish when he got to playing hard and loud. Pattis, on the other hand, did not have any trouble at all in the balance and clarity department. A trade off, I guess, between appealing but artificial tone vs. a more natural sound but problematic dynamics.

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