Strumming in the New Age. Funk and finesse from a revelatory guitarist
WHEN Michael Hedges was a student at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, the young guitarist led a double life. By day, he studied classical guitar and composition in the rarefied conservatory atmosphere. By night, he pounded out Neil Young and Beatles tunes in ``crowded, smoky, Class-B bars.'' ``I learned to hold a crowd,'' he recalls. ``It was noisy in those places.''
Mr. Hedges has since graduated to better music clubs. But he continues to inhabit seemingly opposite worlds.
On the one hand, his guitar solos have the spacious, lyric quality commonly associated with the Windham Hill label on which they appear. In the manner of Chopin's nocturns and Jim Hall's ``Concierto,'' they conjure faraway places and late-night hours. ``Aerial Boundaries,'' his second and most successful album, seems almost to have come to Earth from another place.
Yet at the same time, these pieces are complex and technically demanding, causing critics to marvel at his ``prodigious technique.'' In performance Hedges glides effortlessly from the sublimity of ``Aerial Boundaries,'' the title track on that album, to a raucous, get-down version of the Beatles' ``Come Together.''
``Inside him a rock-and-roller wrestled with a conservatory-trained musician,'' observed Down Beat magazine, ``and out came strong, innovative music.''
While critics grope for labels (``new acoustic'' seems to be the consensus), Hedges's fans just plain like the music. Those exiting a typically packed-house appearance at Nightstage, a Cambridge, Mass., music club, several months ago had a uniform assessment: ``Fantastic.''
In person, Hedges is much the way he is on stage: open and a bit laconic, with a gentle drawl from his native Enid, Okla. He is candid regarding his musical ambitions, some of which (making the Top 40, for example) may surprise his intense following. And he is patient with a reporter who is not intimately acquainted with the music scene.
``I'm the guy who grew up in the Midwest, and all I knew was pop music,'' he says, with only a little exaggeration. He was playing the piano at age 4, and took up the cello, clarinet, and flute later on, inspired in the latter case by Ian Anderson and Paul Horn, among others. It was the Beatles' ``I Want to Hold Your Hand'' that led him to the guitar. In junior high school, he says, ``I just locked myself in my room with my guitar.''
Then the Interlochen music camp in Michigan broadened his horizons. ``These guys were writing music just to write music,'' he recalls. ``It wasn't like Oklahoma, where you educate yourself to music just to become the high school band director.''
After classical training at Peabody, he studied electronic music in California. But he found himself sitting in front of a video screen all day, so he started playing Palo Alto caf'es on the side. There he was discovered by Will Ackerman, a guitarist who was a cofounder of Windham Hill. ``Here's some people who have guitar solos and not that folky stuff,'' Hedges recalls thinking at the time.
Since then, the once-innovative label has been criticized for a schmaltzy, ``yuppie Muzak'' sound. ``It's just something I have to live with,'' Hedges says with a shrug.
More than one new-music buff thinks his inventiveness and funky Jimi Hendrix quality are just what Windham Hill needs to rescue it from the ``New Age'' rap.
When he comes bounding out on stage, Hedges hardly seems the man of the otherworldly ``Aerial Boundaries.'' He has the face of a scruffy cherub, with corn-row braids and a sunny Midwest nature. His compositions push the instrument and himself to the very limit. He picks and strums with both hands, beats on the guitar face like a drum, uses the strings in ways you've never seen before - there's so much going on, it can sound like two or three people.
Hedges has an aversion to the artsy or precious. ``It's just calisthenics, just trying to keep from being bored,'' he says of his inventive techniques. And here's how he introduces his ``Funky Avocado,'' which was written when he lived over a natural-food store in San Francisco: ``Starts out rhythm-and-blues, medium tempo ... ends in a fit of disco fury.'' Tucked inside are a few bars from the Rolling Stones' ``Miss You,'' which he embellishes - he's a gifted mimic - when the audience responds.
``The next tune in the set is `Aerial Boundaries,''' he explains. ``I want to make sure people have gotten a little bit loose so they can concentrate.''
Increasingly, Hedges has been moving toward songwriting and singing; his last album, ``Watching My Life Go By,'' was vocal, with his own guitar and minimal accompaniment. His singing does not equal his guitar work, especially when he's in his jazzy Joni Mitchell mode. Yet Hedges can also be genuinely evocative, as in ``Dancing in the Back Seat,'' which is addressed to his younger brother. And what he lacks in vocal ability, he makes up in sheer sincerity and conviction.
``It's all in whether you mean what you are playing,'' he says. ``That's what soul is.
``I'm not working on my guitar with my fingers,'' he adds. ``I'm working on my being, trying to expand it through music.''
In just a few years, ``Aerial Boundaries'' has become a Hedges standard, like Bob Dylan's ``Blowin' in the Wind.'' Snippets appear as filler on National Public Radio's ``All Things Considered,'' and on TV ads. Hedges has also done the sound track for a Japanese movie on mountain climbing.
But the guitarist has other roads to travel. For one thing, he wants to push ahead into computer-assisted composition, what is often called musique concr`ete. It may surprise many listeners that a cut on ``Aerial Boundaries'' (``Spare Change'') was pieced together note by note from tracks Hedges had laid down previously. Yet it's seemlessly lyrical.
``People working in [such composition] are mostly interested in science,'' he says. ``The music tends to become somewhat cold.'' His goal is to write ``technical yet heartfelt music.''
Hedges's other goal is to form a rock band and do what the Beatles did: give his music ``enough hook, enough soul, enough commercial potential'' to make the Top 40. To his fans, this may be like Dylan going electric. Hedges's singing doesn't translate to vinyl nearly as well as his instrumental work does, and he's sure to meet some skeptics.
```Watching My Life Go By' didn't go anywhere,'' says a record buyer at the Harvard Coop, a major area outlet. ``People don't want to hear him sing. They want to hear him play.''
Yet a new live album, ``Live on the Double Planet,'' seems to capture his urgency much better than the earlier release. And Michael Hedges is convinced that he doesn't have to sell out to sell. ``Hey, if the Beatles can make the Top 40 playlist and communicate something good to the world, man, I'm all for it,'' he says.
``Maybe if the Beatles hadn't come along, I wouldn't be so headstrong.''