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Acoustic Filigree: Andy McKee Heads to the MACC

For one guy with a guitar, Andy McKee summons an amazing array of sounds. Percussive rhythms blend into ethereal filigrees of notes. McKee brings his finger style virtuosity to stages around the islands, including a stop at the MACC’s intimate McCoy Studio this Friday evening.

McKee started buying music at about eight, listening to INXS and some harder acts like Metallica. It was not until he was 13 and heard Eric Johnson that he picked up an instrument.

“He had this amazing tune called Cliffs of Dover,” McKee relates by phone between Kona gigs. “I had never heard the guitar used that way where it was the centerpiece, that was what made me want to play.”

Johnson was an electric guitarist, and a few more influences would appear before McKee was inspired to switch to acoustic.

“I went to a guitar workshop by a guy named Preston Reed,” McKee recalls, “and he was using altered tuning, unusual techniques using the guitar body as a drum, and he was doing tapping that I’d seen from like Eddie Van Halen, but never on the acoustic.”

The new techniques pushed McKee to think of guitar differently.

He also credits fingerstyle players Billy McLaughlin and Canadian Don Ross, but the light really went on when he heard Michael Hedges.

“Hedges revolutionized steel string guitar in the early 80s,” McKee explains. “I discovered him in 1997, and it was everything I wanted to hear from a guitarist. The compositions were rich and deep and complex, and the technical ability was at a high level, which is sort of intellectual, but emotionally, it was very powerful.”

McKee released his first album in 2001, and hit notoriety in the early days of Youtube for obvious reasons: even watching him, his technique is hard to fathom. He now has a half-dozen CD and EP releases, combining original compositions with surprising covers, from Purple Rain to Toto’s Africa.

McKee uses altered tunings, but not from slack-key tradition. He draws his from the fingerstyle school, and ones he dreams up himself. As with his playing, his compositional approach is unique.

“I have and understanding of chord construction and theory,” McKee says, “but when I put guitars into new tunings, I don’t use it that much. I become sort of a hunter-gatherer finding what I can do with these different tunings.”

McKee plays a standard acoustic, but also a baritone guitar, and most impressively, a harp guitar, as his hero Hedges often played. These influence his arrangements and his originals.

“Those various instruments help me get creative,” McKee says, “with new ways to approach writing in different registers. I’ll start with a guitar tuning and come up with maybe a riff or a unique chord voicing that wouldn’t be possible on a regular guitar. Then maybe I’ll find melodic ideas and see where it takes me.”

McKee’s music is crafted to cover miles of sonic terrain. Live, he is certain to provide a fascinating evening of richly eloquent music.

McCoy Studio Theater, Maui Arts and Cultural Center: July 14, 7:30 p.m.,Tickets $38/$48, Mauiarts.org, 808-242-7469 .

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About Stephen Fox

Stephen Fox
Stephen Fox is an academic, journalist, and musician living on Maui. Fox holds a doctorate in Cross-Cultural Psychology from Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand and a master’s in Community and Cultural Psychology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, along with a BA in music from Manoa. He teaches currently at UH Maui. His academic research primarily focuses on the psychological benefits of participation in traditional ethnocultural arts. Musically, Fox has composed an extensive list of film and documentary scores and has performed in rock and world music with masters from a number of cultures. As a journalist, Fox writes primarily about music, and fondly recalls interviews with jazz icon Herbie Mann and The Door’s Ray Manzarek shortly before their deaths. He has also interviewed dozens of other artists who are still alive.

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