REVIEW: World-class guitarist Pierre Bensusan wows the Altamont

Lovers of high-quality acoustic music, rejoice: Altamont Theater has your desires in mind.

For when it comes to providing a top-notch listening experience, Altamont’s Executive Director Brian Lee has a theory: “If the performer is happy and comfortable, you get a better show.” That approach evidently paid off Saturday night, when the Altamont hosted the world-class guitar player Pierre Bensusan, a French Algerian now hailing from Paris, for a solo performance.

Presently enjoying the 48th year of his career — beginning with his first record deal at age 17 — Bensusan is in the midst of a five-month international tour. But it seems the Altamont offers a peaceful respite during a long stint on the road, with one of the six vacation-rental apartments upstairs reserved for the performer. The convivial guitarist looked relaxed and engaged as he chatted with audience members before the show, during the break, and afterward, providing autographs and photo opps to his clearly devoted fans.

Bensusan’s gorgeous music is hard to pigeonhole, as it draws upon a wealth of styles from Celtic to middle-eastern to jazz and beyond, in a seamless blend that’s definitely more than the sum of its parts. He’s a singer-songwriter – although that moniker seems inadequate in his case — with most songs in French, but not every tune has words, and some feature his whistling, while others use the improvised vocabulary of scat.

The guitarist took up piano initially, at age 7, then taught himself guitar at 11. “I didn’t know how to play chords at first,” he told the rapt audience, “so when I wanted to modulate, I would just put on a capo.”

For this string player, Bensusan’s technique is remarkable. His athletic left hand travels the full length of the neck, laying down complex chords in rapid succession. His head and upper body hunch over, hugging the guitar, as if trying to physically merge with the instrument. His lips are often in contact with the guitar’s shoulder. His finger-picking style depends on reinforced fingernails on his right hand (can’t afford to break a nail during a show!) — he confesses to using a clear acrylic nail paint to keep each one intact.

The sound is rich and complex, like Bach, with a relentless counterpoint of interacting treble and bass melodies created simultaneously in that left hand. There’s a lot of texture, too, with a huge range of tonal variation depending on how he manages the strings. “Astonishing” was the word overheard from the adjoining table, and it fits.

During the break, music from Bensusan’s personal I-pod played over the sound system, including tunes from folk icon Joni Mitchell. Like Mitchell, over the years “My singing voice has lost some high range, and picked up some notes in the bass,” Bensusan told Xpress. The performer also whistles the melody at times, to good effect, and his agile falsetto rivals that of Bobby McFerrin.

At the show’s end, the performer returned for two lengthy encores. The second of these was preceded by a warning about the length of the medley, entitled “DADGAD Cafe”: “You insisted…so you are responsible!” No one complained. (DADGAD is an alternative guitar tuning commonly associated with Celtic music, in which even the open strings produce a chord.)

Location, location, location

The Altamont is the perfect place to enjoy such high-quality instrumental acts. The venue opened last year, hoping to focus on musical theater productions; since then, however, the emphasis has been on live music, along with stand-up comedy, and similar gigs that flourish in this focused, listening-room environment. The musical offerings include lots of newer bands, but also the occasional world-class act like Bensusan.

There’s a green building angle at work here, too:  the facility’s design was approved, two points shy of LEED-silver certification; with Lee’s encouragement, the contractors focused on reusing materials during the renovation, thus diverting waste material that would otherwise end up in the landfill.

The Altamont features a flexible performance space that can accommodate up to 120 seats organized in rows, or a smaller number set at tables, cabaret style. Saturday’s show used a combination of the two arrangements to seat roughly 70 souls in a comfortable, intimate setting – such a treat considering the caliber of the performer.

Lee and business partner-wife Tiffany Hampton are Raleigh natives, returned to raise a family in Asheville after pursuing musical theater in New York City. After acquiring the Asheville Savings Bank annex on Church Street in 2008, they launched their plan to produce professional musical theater in downtown Asheville. The place has seen sporadic attendance since they opened; they dabbled in music in the beginning, says Lee, but soon recognized that the music seemed to be getting the most attention.

Their spring and summer lineup still includes a diverse set of offerings, including stand-up comedy and theatrical acts, but emphasizing the music.

“We really mix it up, with local stuff and better-known acts” from further afield, he tells Xpress. On May 17 and 18, they’ll offer the gypsy-style theatrical band, Caravan of Thieves, an act that interacts heavily with the audience at cabaret-style table seating.  Next month there’s a CD release party with Jen Foster and Red June.

They’re looking to develop a certain reputation in the music world, says Lee, and their success hinges on an approach that considers the needs of performers and audiences seeking a quality acoustic experience. “We have to court good talent, and the way we do that is to give them a great place to play.”

Lee is thrilled at how audiences have responded. At a recent show with the California Guitar Trio, Lee reports, the group received standing ovations not just at the end, but for individual numbers. “This is our new favorite venue! We love this place!” Lee quotes the band as saying. “I was so proud…I’ve never seen that happen before.”

In describing the couple’s vision for the Altamont, Lee cites music’s role in human history and culture. “It’s an intimate art form. Music was storytelling, communication with a small group of people.

“We’re returning to that,” he explains. “That’s what we want to accomplish. Everyone’s there for a common reason: to hear that music.”

“The artist wants every note to be heard,” Lee adds. “They don’t write music so you have to stand at a bar and scream.” Rather than “being a place that’s mainly about selling beer—we’re a place about music first.”


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