British fingerstyle-guitar master Adrian Legg’s newest instrumental work — Fingers and Thumbs (Red House Records, 1999) — is more like an audible picture book than an album. Though no lyrics spell out the songs’ themes, the musician’s bedazzling artistry provides more narrative than a sheaf of lyric sheets.
Not surprisingly, the musician — whom Music Week magazine called “ridiculously talented” — is also an expert in traditional storytelling. Legg’s dry comedy finds a home in his live shows, which are rumored to be equal parts playing and tale-spinning.
Legg’s own story began at the Salvation Army Hospital on Lower Clapton Road in Hackney, East London. A self-described “true Cockney,” Legg studied oboe as a boy — but quickly forgot that classical instrument upon discovering the guitar.
“Rebellion is why I left home,” he recalls of his decision to hit the road at age 19. “My parents were anti-guitar, so I learned to play and joined a country-and-western band. Then I heard Lonnie Mack’s Wham [Mack is widely held as modern rock’s first guitar hero] and I knew it would be my career.”
Over the years, Legg has displayed his fancy fingerwork in venues light years beyond the Liverpool clubs he first inhabited. Two of his releases — Guitars for Mortals (Red House Records 1992) and Mrs. Crowe’s Blue Waltz (Red House Records, 1993) — have earned Acoustic Album of the Year honors in Guitar Player magazine polls. That same readership elected him Best Fingerstyle Guitarist four years running. More significantly, Britain’s Guitarist magazine crowned him Acoustic Guitarist of the Decade.
One music writer noted that Legg unwittingly “shatter[s] the egos” of other fingerstylists, but in an interview with Denver’s Westword, the Brit held that the true test of virtuosity lies not with the player, but with the listener: “I think that if you try to explain music too much, you can actually destroy the potential it has — or some of the potential — because everything that happens in music happens in somebody else’s head. … If I play a piece of music, whatever happens doesn’t happen in my head. That’s all about delivery and performance and the actual technical business, as well. No, it happens in the head of who is listening. I might make a piece of music out of a very specific emotional experience, but what it’s addressed to is the generality of that kind of musical experience. The whole point of playing music, in any style, is that somebody else is supposed to feel something. It’s that simple. It doesn’t matter how you make that happen, but it matters very much that you make that happen.”
Legg achieves that goal easily in Fingers and Thumbs. The disc is drenched, start to finish, with his eloquent melodies — from the raw power of “Lunchtime at Rosie’s” to the careful mellifluence of “Hymn for Jaco” (a tribute to bassist Jaco Pastorius).
But what of the album’s actual mood? It’s a region of pure, sweet melancholy, as beautiful and peculiar as a dream. At least, that’s one part of the story.