Lots of Laughs From a Stellar Guitarist

Review by Bill Monahan of Wendell Ferguson at Meaford Hall, Mar. 11, 2017

Wendell Ferguson has a real talent for disarming an audience right off the bat and making everyone happy to be there.  He tells some great jokes and interacts with the audience with a lot of off-the-cuff wit.  His is a self-deprecating humour, dismissing himself as a guitar playing joke.  Not only is his guitar playing no joke, it’s truly amazing.  It’s not surprising that he won CCAA Guitar Player of The Year award four years in a row before he told them to stop nominating him to give somebody else a chance.  If he hadn’t done that, still no one else would have a chance.  To hear a guitar player of this quality is such a rare treat, so full of energy, melody and rhythm.  It’s not just his amazing facility on the fretboard, it’s what he does with it.  I guess it’s cool that he doesn’t have a swelled head about it, and we Canadians do seem to value humility, but jeez!

It makes me wonder.  I’ve seen some players whose self-confidence so far exceeds their abilities that that alone gives them a momentum.  When you see a musician that makes you want to bow down and chant “We’re not worthy!” you kind of feel he deserves to hold himself in high esteem.  Still, even at its most self-deprecating, Wendell Ferguson’s humour had us all laughing out loud.

The lighting kind put him off a little during the first set, two bright lights set below him setting him in a ghostly glare.  He couldn’t refer to his set list without shielding his eyes.  And he couldn’t see the audience, which undermined his ability to banter, which he excels at.  Soundman Al Burnham immediately jumped up and offered to fix it, but he demurred, not wanting to seem to demanding I guess. But for the second set the room lights were left on and it was a huge improvement.  Now we were all drawn in to his personality, and we all felt like friends, when he made eye contact with each of us in the room.  Many were personal friends, and he happily related anecdotes about them.

Sitting right in front of him was “the youngest person in the room,” a teenager that he learned is named Bennett.  He asked if his parents were unable to get a baby sitter and that’s why they dragged him along, and was told that the boy was there because he is an aspiring guitar player.  So he played a medley of Chet Atkins tunes for him, apologizing in advance for not doing a better job, explaining that it was something he was just learning.  Chet Atkins, in addition to creating the “Nashville Sound” as a producer through the sixties, is an outstanding finger picking guitarist and anyone who attempts to replicate his sound is brave.  And Wendell Ferguson did so flawlessly, at least as far as I could tell.  Bennet will either be inspired to practice all day every day, or he’ll throw away his guitar figuring that he will never attain that level of excellence (I hope it’s the former!)

Along with everything else Wendell treated us all to some guitar lessons, with a lengthy explanation of how harmonics on the fretboard work.  The audience seemed pleased to get the information, and I know I was, as a guitar player, thrilled at the tutorial.  And then, of course, his demonstration was, like all his instrumentals, transcendent.

He had started off the first set with an instrumental called “Mayor of Loserville”, truly mind-blowing, and later, in addition to the Chet Atkins medley, he did a medley of 60’s songs as instrumentals.  The word awesome is over-used but it applies here in it’s true meaning, as awe-inspiring.

If he hadn’t spoken a word but had only played instrumentals all night, it would have been a show worth seeing.  But he offered much more than that and proved himself to be a performer not to be missed.  He’s legendary as a sideman, one of those invisible talents that enhance the performance of others.  But with his audience rapport, his sharp wit and his own songwriting, he is a performer who deserves to be front and centre.

He played a lot of familiar covers but, except for Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, he substituted the original lyrics with his own comic creations, parodies that would put Weird Al Yankovic in the shadows.  His version of D-I-V-O-R-C-E by “Hammy Swinette” became B-U-T-C-H-E-R, all about a favourite pig’s final days.  He turned the Johnny Cash classic, “A Boy Named Sue” into “A Boy Named Bruce”, where he retained all of the dynamics and drama of the original song but changed it to focus on the malleable gender identification that has become part of our current culture.  And he donned sunglasses and a harmonica holder to do a great imitation of Bob Dylan in which “Like A Rolling Stone” became a song about choking to death, with the main lines ending in “didn’t chew!”

His own original songs, also heavy on the humour, were just as strong lyrically.  Having crossed Canada countless times in his career as a musician, he was inspired to pen a tongue-in-cheek ode to our great country about the endless rocks and trees and trees and rocks, which make even the sight of construction equipment seem like scenery.  His annoyance a fiddle jams that leave no room for any other instruments came out as “Throw Another Fiddle On The Fire”, and his most impressive song, “WW
JD”, apparently a reminder for born-again Christians to ask themselves “What Would Jesus Do?” for him meant “What Would Jesus Drive” and it was a long, extremely clever laundry list of deities, prophets and car models.

It was the kind of performance that deserved rapt attention through every moment.  Funnier than the best of comedians, with more virtuosity than the best guitar players, Wendell Ferguson is a talent who impressed everyone but himself.

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