Words by Corinne Casella | Photos by Mark Dershowitz
Musicians of all ages, armed with guitars and smiles poured into City Winery Sunday, December 11th to celebrate Guitar Mash’s fifth anniversary event. This year’s theme, ‘Songs Shared are Bridges Built,’ gave voice to Guitar Mash’s mission of creating space for musicians to learn and play together. What makes their annual City Winery event so special is that audience members are not only given the opportunity to create together, they are given lessons and guidance by some of the music industry’s greatest talents. This year’s roster was a buffet of mixed genres, including Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio, Sam Bush, Joseph Arthur, Dar Williams and more. The always talented Guitar Mash house band comprised of John Conte on bass, David Cossin on drums and Rob Schwimmer on keys, showed their musical versatility in keeping up with each change of artist and style.
Tuning up to the chord of G, Artistic Director Mark Stewart kicked off the afternoon with a rousing rendition of Pete Seeger’s ‘If I Had a Hammer.’ Next up was Jon Herington, longtime lead guitarist of Steely Dan, who started with a strong version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ Herington explained that while the song has had many interpretations over the years, his favorite was that of “a songwriters invocation of the songwriters muse.” Next up was Sting collaborator and Australian born musician Jo Lawry. Lawry led the crowd in a stirring traditional Irish ballad, Paul Brady’s ‘The Lakes of Pontchartrain.’ Full of warmth and whimsy, the song invoked images of a pub session intermingled with the sounds of a crackling fire and old friends.
One of larger surprises of the afternoon was celebrity chef Tom Colicchio’s provocative adaptation of Alice Wine’s protest song ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.’ “If we want to save democracy we have to participate,” stated an impassioned Colicchio. A feeling of hope was swept up among the voices of the young, as a generation of future voters sang along to the lyrics, “Freedom’s name is mighty sweet. And soon we’re gonna meet. Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.” Folk singer/songwriter Dar Williams was the perfect artist to follow Colicchio, as a woman who continuously lives in her own truth. She led the approximately 300 or so players in a soul-stirring version of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb.’ She made the song her own, with a beautiful gravitas, minimal yet melodic.
The reason for the benefit, a chance for young musicians to find a community, was brilliantly illustrated by the Guitar Mash Teens, comprised of over 19 kids, who performed versions of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ and Bill Withers’ ‘Lean on Me.’ The kids, a healthy mix of ages, races and genders, proved that the true power of music is about creating a bridge that connects us all. As long as a kid can get a guitar in hand and can use their voice, that power will be forever sanctified. ‘I feel like I just wondered into a strange guitar cult,” stated singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur with a smile. His incendiary guitar solos and witty banter inspired the crowds as he led them in a rollicking version of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Can You Hear the Music.’ With his unique style of stripped down rock, Arthur spoke directly to the youth in the crowd, reminding them to never play it safe and instead to play rude and stay true to the music in their hearts.
Grammy-nominated blues legend and on-site guitar teacher Bill Sims Jr. demonstrated his finger picking chops. With natural nuance, Sims played alongside one of his students to deliver a perfect rendition of ‘Sweet Home Chicago.’ Arguably the best performance of the day came from the virtually unknown Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer-songwriter who’s version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ was nothing short of perfection. As the house band cleared the stage, her voice became a haunting cadence that filled the room with a fierce form of expectancy and promise. As audiences around the world sang along, the possibility of hope remained pregnant and palpable.
While a tough act to follow, newgrass legend Sam Bush, armed with a mandolin, roused the crowd from their reveries with an energetic version of Bill Monroe’s ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky.’ With a clipped backbeat in 4/4 time, Bush explained how Monroe created the chop to become analogous to a snare drum beat, taking bluegrass from mountain music to a harder groove. The afternoon ended with an all artists on deck singalong to Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land.’ It’s so “important to have group culture in this divisive time,” stated audience member Maggie Zellner, a first time attendee who proved that Guitar Mash’s mission of hope and community will live on for another five years and many more besides.
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