photo by Grant Britt
He calls it big little music. David Lindley’s term for his amplified acoustic music captures his sound and his essence perfectly. Lindley is understated but powerful, his presence looming large, his approach delicate but dominating.
At a rare North Carolina appearance Sunday night at Greensboro, N.C.’s Revolution Mill Event Center, Lindley transformed the former textile mill into an intimate living room, conducting a master class in fingerpicking. Lindley brought a delicious array of instruments along for the occasion, including three Weissenhorn Hawaiian lap steel guitars, an oud and a bouzouki.
He began his performance with the largest of the Hawaiian guitars, a baritone lap steel with a tone as rich as a pipe organ for Bonnie Raitt’s “About To Make Me Leave Home.” Forsaking the slinky bluesiness of Raitt’s version for an Appalachian-flavored one, Lindley damped the strings with his pinky, alternately tapping, brushing and bearing down on the slide, eliciting a hill country flavor with an island aftertaste.
Although Lindley is steeped in traditional music, his presentation is anything but, keeping you guessing as to which cultural tradition he’s going to employ as a delivery system. Switching to bouzouki for the traditional English/Appalachian murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” Lindley’s dirge-like version sounds like a Balkan county blues. He rewrote the ending, allegedly with Dolly’s approval. “Dolly Parton said it was okay to do that,” he says, apparently referring to her makeover of the song as “Down From Dover.”
The sold-out crowd is the quietest, most respectful bunch ever assembled at a local music event. Fans of Lindley know that he is a stickler for privacy and respect during his shows, telling audiences they cannot film or record him or he will leave the stage. He didn’t make the announcement this time, it was done for him by Triad Acoustic Stage’s Bill Payne, who emceed the event. When he asked for cell phones to be turned off and tablets shut down and put away, it was done with no fuss, and none popped open during the show. The crowd looked mesmerized, worshipful, rapt, and quiet- no shuffling, no mumbling- just Lindley’s extraordinary music floating through the space for over two hours.
Lindley says the protagonist of “Meatgrinder Blues” suffers from a revere Midas touch: “Everything he touches turns to crap.” Lindley provides a step-by-step guide for masochists who insist on grinding themselves down, conjuring up a grinder the size of a cement mixer: “climb inside, turn around, grab hold of the handle and grind- make a gourmet bratwurst out of you.”
Warren Zevon’s “The Vast Indifference of Heaven” has a Ry Cooder feel, a gospel intro that evolves into a Hawaiian slack key tropical breeze.
Lindley is as entertaining a raconteur as he is a player. His account of his learning how to play banjo has the crowd guffawing as he describes how his fifteen year old self kept his mom from knowing how much he was practicing the banjo because she was afraid he would turn out to be a hillbilly. He recalls stuffing a wet towel under the door, then packing the banjo full of his little sister’s cloth diapers to dampen the sound. But he gave up when he asked her if she could still hear him practicing, and she said, “It kept me awake anyway cause I knew you were playing it.” Lindley said that’s when he made his choice to continue. “Sorry, Mom.” But Lindley being Lindley, he demonstrates his prowess on the banjo not on that instrument but on bouzouki instead.
After a brief intermission, Lindley offers up more Zevon, with a gorgeous rendition of “Mutineer” that sounds like it’s coming to you from a Hawaiian atoll.
Switching to his Turkish oud, he offers up “Minglewood Blues,” a middle Eastern boogie melody with Western lyrics concerning a woman-snatching knave who the preacher man calls a sinner “but his little girl call me saint.”
He closes out the set with a rousing, rollicking reggae version of his 1981 hit “Mercury Blues” from El Rayo- X, sung in a Jamaican patois, rolling to a stop after a brief second line glide through “Bon Ton Roule.”
The encore is “Quarter of a Man,” with a sinister spaghetti Western intro that branches out into slow, chugging reggae about a man who only lives up to a quarter of his potential.
The sold out crowd honors Lindley with a standing ovation that goes on until Payne finally steps up to the mic and announces that Lindley will be available for more adoration after the show, up close and personal in the lobby. Many line up to pay tribute, ask for a blessing in the form of an autograph, or load up on Lindley memorabilia. But most want their blessing to be a promise – that Lindley will return, and soon, with more of his unique musical message.