The Tuning Fork welcomed Steve Gunn last Saturday night as part of The Southern Fork Americana Festival, almost exactly a year since his last visit to New Zealand. Gunn's acclaimed guitar playing style is an eclectic mix of punk, blues, folk and psychedelic rock.
Arriving a little past 8 in the evening, I schmoozed to a pilsner and dumplings before seeing opening act Arthur Ahbez bound in with his guitar. Something like a character from a kiwi spinoff of a Shakespearean drama, the Auckland songwriter comforted the crowd with a sullen, yet beautiful soprano voice. Fitted out with harmonica, he played a healthy 30-minute set of originals from latest album Volume II and covers including Railroad Bill by Ramblin Jack Elliott.
Splitting up the the two acts of the night was our very own Radio 13 DJ Victoria, whose selection of music blended the contrasting folky styles perfectly.
After a consistent stream of casually-late ticket holders, the gaps on the gig floor were filled before Steve Gunn took to the stage at 9.30.
Born in Pennsylvania, USA and now based in Brooklyn New York, Gunn’s influences stay firmly rooted in his relationship with the guitar, specifically fingerstyle. Growing up listening to punk, hardcore, blues, folk and experimental music, his guitar playing effortlessly blur the boundaries of these genres.
In an interview with VICE, he explains.
“I play fingerstyle guitar, and I did learn how to play guitar by learning old folk and blues songs, so maybe there’s a thread there”
This thread was beautifully woven into his first song of the evening Water Wheel, from the 2013 album Time Off. As the track’s rolling guitar creeps into recognition he preps the audience, and himself, for his performance.
“I am going to do a little intro to actually convince myself I am playing on stage, just give me a minute to work things out”
With a face laden with concentration, he plays for a good few minutes before his low, melancholic voice tightly grips the audience. Blue, red and green lights create an aura that casts his swaying shadow on the surrounding walls. As the song progresses he confronts the audience more directly, starring over the venue with frazzled eyes “that have been flying too much.”
Confidence gained, the third song of the evening Morning is Mended quickly silences the crowd again. Despite the clunky ending, this new song really set the tone of the rest of the evening – one of tribute and respect.
The next song gave tribute to his mentor “funny ass dude” Jack Rose. With no vocals, the fingerstyle really rung true here with exotic scales, bends, slaps and strikes – the guitar tones bellowing rich harmonies that rattled the rib-cage.
Another tribute followed for British folk legend Michael Chapman with Among the Trees.
Picking up a striking green electric Jansen, lent to him by 95bFM's Big Hungry, things took a more psychedelic turn with Park Bench Smile. A healthy array of boosting pedals brought the volume up a few notches (maybe a little too much) and provided enough dirt to get hips swaying.
Ending around 10.30 with another tribute, this time to his late father, Stonehurst Cowboy is a sobering track. The minor overtones made your eyes heavy, along with jarring vocal lines acting as a rallying cry: "before there is nothing left for all those cowboys in the world."
Gunn live, without the extra layers of instrumentation in his albums, makes his craft look like a breeze. By the time the encore finished, we were humbled by the lyrics but oozing with respect for his guitar playing - all signs that his talent will be back again next year.
Radio 13 thanks and credits Lara Marie for the images in this article.