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The rewards of genius

Enter the humble obscurity of string master David Lindley

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As a little boy, David Lindley used to wedge his head and body under the soundboard of his uncle’s piano so he could feel the sound with his whole being. He attributes his obsession with stringed instruments to those times. Some might say that that story is fitting for a musician whose eccentricities have kept him from becoming as famous as his friend and peer Ry Cooder. But even though his career as one of the finest multi-instrumentalist string players in contemporary music has been consistently marked by a humble obscurity, he says he chose it that way. Lindley is the epitome of the musician’s musician: he’s relatively little known except by those willing to plow through liner notes and credits, looking for the man behind the riff.

Lindley was playing “world music” long before it had a name. Legend has it that in the mid-1960s he won a tiebreaker against Taj Mahal at the Topanga Banjo Contest by playing a flamenco version of the blues tune “John Henry.” This ability to mix traditional forms on literally dozens of instruments, delta blues and old-time music on the Turkish saz, or Kurdish melodies on the five-string banjo, has produced an ever-growing list of musical fusions that includes African, Celtic, Middle-Eastern and Asian influences. Lindley’s diverse musical talent has made him one of the most sought after sidemen in contemporary music. His playing has been featured on recordings from John Prine to Tanita Tikaram; Iggy Pop to Dolly Parton. He has often played second fiddle to many less skilled, yet more celebrated musicians. Nevertheless, genius has its rewards, and Lindley’s unwillingness to sell his personal aspirations for fame has allowed him to do what he wants, perhaps much more so than the luminaries on whose records he has performed.

Lindley is probably best known for his work with Jackson Browne throughout the 1970s and 80s. Any fan of Browne’s early work is likely as much a fan, whether they know it or not, of David Lindley. His melodic solos are woven so delicately into the warp of the songs it is often difficult to tell where Browne’s vocals leave off and Lindley’s instrumental harmonies begin.

Over the years David Lindley and Ry Cooder, another self-styled, world music, multi-instrumental genius, have joined their skills to make several extraordinary soundtracks, including Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, and two historical westerns by filmmaker Walter Hill, The Long Riders and Geronimo. Lindley also composed and recorded a stunningly beautiful soundtrack for Sean Penn’s debut film masterwork, The Indian Runner. In the 1980s, Lindley attempted his closest approximation to a pop music, solo career with the release of several recordings with his band El Rayo X (Spanish for “the x-ray”). In an interview for Acoustic Guitar Magazine Lindley characterized the sound of El Rayo X as “music for taking solos with” saying that the songs are essentially constructed like bluegrass, with a lot of two- and three-part vocal harmonies, “except we’re not wearing our apricot, three-piece sharkskin suits.” To the layman’s ear El Rayo X seems like the perfect vehicle for Lindley to give expression to his reggae compulsion. It was Lindley’s most prolific songwriting period to date, and while many of his songs were probably too topical to make the pop music charts, some, such as Talk To The Lawyers and Pay The Man, have become cult classics.

Lindley is a strong advocate of musicians’ control over their own recordings. He began touring with Middle Eastern percussionist Hani Naser in the mid 1990s, producing two live digital recordings (the “Official Bootlegs”) on his own. An ongoing tour promoting those recordings, Lindley says, was much more successful than his previous recording industry gigs. The present tour, with multi-instrumental percussionist Wally Ingram, continues the acoustic instrument format begun with Hani Naser that Lindley calls “big little music.” Asked in a recent interview with Santa Barbara News-Press why he chose to play with Wally Ingram, Lindley said, “He was an obvious choice for me because he doesn’t play normal stuff. His drum set is very strange.” They will be promoting their latest self-produced recordings, “Twango Bango Deluxe” and “Twango Bango II.” By his own estimate, Lindley plays about nine different instruments at his live performances: the Turkish saz, bouzouki, twelve-string guitar, and an assortment of Hawaiian guitars. “It’s not fun for (the road crew) at all,” he says. “They really hate me during string-change time”.

David Lindley and Wally Ingram play the Blue Heron, Wednesday Aug. 8 at 9:30 PM. Tickets are $15 advance, $17 day of show.

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