Guitar strings of gold
Across three decades, five record labels and multiple shifts in the popularity and perception of its signature sound, Acoustic Alchemy—founded by guitarists Nick Webb and Greg Carmichael—has always produced superbly crafted music. The band has been casting sonic spells at Blue Note Hawaii this week, and Carmichael, a lifelong musician with a wry, British sense of humor, spoke with Summit from Waikiki while getting ready to play last night.
Carmichael’s parents had started him on ʻukulele, interestingly, to test his resolve before buying him a guitar. He persevered.
“I got to the end of school and, when the careers masters asked, ‘well what are you going to do,’ and I said, ‘I want to be a guitarist,’” Carmichael recalls. “They looked down the list and they suggested maybe I should join the Army to pursue a career as a musician. So I left school, and I managed to get into the London College of Music. That sort of deferred getting a job, and I could spend four years studying and doing something I loved.”
At the same time, Webb was formulating a dream of blending acoustic and electric guitar in a jazz format, now more common, but unknown at that time. When they met, in 1985, Carmichael had recently graduated with a degree in classical guitar and had formed a band to do local gigs. Webb had been playing as a duo with another classical guitarist, Simon James, who left to pursue other interests.
“Nick had stayed on the lookout for a nylon-string guitarist, because that was the thing,” Carmichael relates, “the combination of steel string and nylon string, that sound together.”
Webb saw him play and immediately invited him to join Acoustic Alchemy.
“I said, that sounds interesting,” Carmichael says. “How many in the band? And Nick said, ‘it’s just me,’” Carmichael chuckles.
The Acoustic Alchemy sound is well established now, but success did not come easily at first.
“When we started, it was very much a unique thing,” Carmichael recalls. “We started writing together and put together a demo to try and get a deal. But, in England, the idea of instrumental guitar music—they just weren’t interested in it.”
One evening, Webb arrived at their gig playing at a wine bar with a newspaper ad for a newly formed airline.
“It said, ‘entertainment for Virgin Airlines required, jugglers and fire eaters need not apply,’” Carmichael laughs.
Virgin’s Richard Branson wanted acoustic musicians to stroll the aisles after dinner and before the movie to break up the long Trans-Atlantic flight. Payment was a round trip flight to New York. Having no success with the British record companies, Webb and Carmichael decided to try their luck in the U.S. They made their way to Nashville, where they could crash at a friend’s place.
Their timing was perfect because New Age music was taking off. While they had never heard of New Age, their sound fit the genre perfectly. The friend introduced them to Tony Brown at MCA Records, who was about to release a set of records by artists including Larry Carlton. A few weeks after their return to London, Brown signed them and sent funds to record their first album, Red Dust and Spanish Lace (1987).
“It was the strangest thing because Nashville is associated with country music,” Carmichael says. “It was really just luck and that cliché of being in the right place at the right time. Then it snowballed, because there were a lot of great musicians who realized they could play without needing to sing.”
A tune from the album, called “Mr. Chow,” captured their zeitgeist and became a hit on what eventually turned into Smooth Jazz radio. The band soon moved from MCA to GRP, which was a major label at the time—big enough to provide recording budgets, tour support and marketing to propel the band to stardom.
During recording of their ninth album, Positive Thinking (1998), the dream bubble burst. Webb was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died before the album could be completed. Carmichael was devastated.
“It was always the two of us who were Acoustic Alchemy, and Nick was the more gregarious one, Carmichael explains. “I didn’t know whether I could keep it going without Nick because we were a partnership. When he died, I felt duty bound to finish the album.”
Producer John Parsons played the guitar parts and Carmichael faced the decision of whether to tour to support the album. They did indeed tour, and that is where Carmichael found the reason to go on.
“It was the people coming up after a gig on this tour saying we love your music, you’ve got to keep this thing going,” he says.
Carmichael’s depth of feeling for the band’s fans transcends his English emotional reserve.
“There’s a lot of loyal people,” he relates. “And it’s very touching because we come out to sign CDs after every gig and you get to chat with people. You’ve got people who have been fans for a long time, and then you’ve got the children who were like five and six and their parents played them Acoustic Alchemy. They’re now fully grown with kids of their own. It’s really nice support.”
Blue Note Hawaii recently took over the Society of Seven room at the Outrigger hotel, adding new décor and high quality equipment. The room is an intimate setting, perfect for seeing great musicians, like those in Acoustic Alchemy, live. Catch them tonight, Saturday or on Father’s Day. Tickets run from $25–45.