Tuesday, March 16, 2010 • Genfan delights packed house

Publisher’s note: This story originally appeared in the Tuesday, March 16, 2010, edition of the Lassen County Times.

Personable guitar goddess Vicki Genfan led a willing crowd of about 200 appreciative music lovers down the seductive path of alternate tunings and through the percussive fairyland of her own unique double-handed playing style during a stunningly enjoyable concert at the St. Francis Hotel on Tuesday, March 9.

The show, sponsored by the Lassen County Arts Council and Lassen Community College, christened a possible new Susanville music and entertainment venue at the St. Francis Hotel. Many patrons showed up early for a pre-concert meal in the restaurant and then retired to the hotel’s banquet room for an evening of music and an assortment of adult libations from the full-service bar.

Lassen Arts Council President Doug Sheehy thanked the crowd for its support of the local scene on a Tuesday night.

“We’re on a really good roll right now, and it’s all because you people are supporting it,” Sheehy said. “I mean, how many times do you have to listen to the health care drama on CNN? How many reality shows do you need to watch? This is real! This is happening! Yeah!”

Armed with nothing but a small PA system, a vocal mic, a tuner, a couple of foot pedals and a big, jumbo, custom-made, signature model Luna guitar, Genfan was as at ease as if she were just noodling around in her living room for a bunch of old friends.

She drew the audience along through a two-hour, 15-song set that covered much of her career but leaned heavily upon her 2006 double-CD “Up Close and Personal.” She also included several cover tunes arranged in that special Vicki Genfan way including “Groovin’” by the Young Rascals, “Long Train Running,” by the Doobie Brothers, “What’s Goin’ On,” by Marvin Gaye and “Norwegian Wood,” by John Lennon of the Beatles.

In Genfan’s loving hands, each of these cover tunes retains its essential elements of structure, melody, harmony and rhythm, but her approach to her instrument and the unusual and unexpected sounds she coaxes and forces from it frequently bend them into something strangely familiar and yet completely new at the same time.

Her original songs included “So What’s It to You,” “Because of You,” “Kali Dreams,” “Don’t Give Up On Me,” “Luna Ahumada,” “Impossanova,” “Offerings,” “Joy” and “New Grass.”

Of course, Genfan also performed her acoustic pyrotechnic tour-de-force, “Atomic Reshuffle,” the piece that led to her 2008 Guitar Superstar Competition victory. By request, she even performed a more spirited but truncated version as an encore that drew an even bigger response the second time around.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” someone screamed during the song’s first percussive interlude.

“Vicki Genfan rocks,” a female fan squealed when the guitarist returned to the opening musical motif a few seconds later.

Quite frankly, one has a difficult time remaining outside the adoration and adulation during unabashedly spontaneous and joyful moments like this.

Alternate tunings
Standard guitar tuning developed over the centuries as a way to comfortably fit the major and minor scales into a single position on the guitar fretboard. Most guitarists play in standard turning.

But different, alternate guitar tunings probably have been around as long as the instrument itself. Renaissance music written for lutes, one of the guitar’s suspected ancestors, frequently utilizes a variety of alternate tunings built around the perfect intervals — fourths and fifths. They’re also common in Spanish, flamingo and classical guitar music. Why, there are even dozens of modal tunings in Celtic music, and dozens more are common in blues and country music. And who could forget the slack key tunings from Hawaiian music popularized during the 1930s?

So, what’s the big deal? Most guitarists pick up on alternate tunings almost as a novelty. Few — John Fahey, Joni Mitchell, Will Ackerman, Michael Hedges, Leo Kottke and David Crosby — seek them out as a profession.

Modern alternate tunings are frequently referred to as open tunings because when the unfretted strings are played open they sound a common chord, rising through the major and minor thirds to form a pair of triads spread out over a couple of octaves.

But Genfan shuns those familiar tunings to go for more unusual and evocative voicings — minor sevenths, suspended fourths, ninths, 13ths and beyond. In between each song Genfan moves on to the next tuning, wringing her strings up and down through wide, wide intervals and into places no self-respecting guitar string has ever gone before.

“I’ve been doing this strange kind of guitar technique for a long time, and it just developed gradually,” Genfan said. “I’ve always played guitar, and then I heard Joni Mitchell. Her guitar sounded different when I was a kid, and I was, whoa, what’s she doing? Someone told me she was tuning, so then I started tuning. I figured if Joni could tune, I could tune. Tune, tune tune … “

For Genfan, the alternate tunings opened up a whole new world of musical expression.

“I have 31 different tunings now, and about the only things I remember are my tunings. As long as I keep doing this as my profession, I should be okay. It gets inconvenient sometimes —the forgetting other things. I like to think of it as a painter having different colors to paint with. You know, a different set of six colors. If you went into a room and you had all greens, you’d create something different than if you had a mixture of rainbow colors or if you had all reds. It just makes you feel different, and that’s how it is with the tunings. Tunings make me feel different, and they inspire different kinds of music.”

More technique
Genfan’s unique approach to the instrument only starts with her alternate tunings. She slaps. She taps. She bangs and bashes the guitar as if it were a drum and relies heavily on splashy, bell-like harmonics that ring and ring even after she’s moved on to other musical ideas. She strums. She picks. She plays melody. She plays rhythm. And underneath it all, she lays down these funky, infectious bass lines that propel the pieces forward at a breakneck pace and provide the glue that holds these tumbling, divergent sonic ingredients together.

“I decided I needed to name my technique finally, after all these years of working to develop something that was actually a style,” Genfan said. “People always asked, ‘What do you call that?’ I didn’t know what to call it, so I came up with a name that was short and sweet, and I think kind of gives you the gist of it. I call it slap-tap. Slapping cause of slapping my thumb a lot like a bass player, and I’m tapping a lot of these harmonics. Everything else is just — other things.”

Genfan offered a brief primer on her style for listeners during her performance.

“Let me break it down for you,” Genfan said. “You’ve got a tuning, that’s the first thing. A tuning is just an open chord. It’s just a chord that you like. You can make up any tuning you like as long as you don’t break the strings. There are really no rules. Then you just take this 12th fret harmonic here, and you just tap. Practice that for a little while. You can use one finger, or you can group-tap with many fingers. That in and of itself is pretty cool, I think. The first time I figured that out, I was very astounded, oh, my God. Then you can add very simple things like a couple of bass notes here with your left hand, and it’s a lot more interesting all of a sudden. Now that’s really simple, isn’t it? Does that look really hard?”

Despite Genfan’s demonstration, she left many in the audience in a state of awe.

Trouble with the media
Genfan also joked about her encounter with a newspaper reporter who misquoted her as she sought to describe her playing style. After she won the Guitar Superstar Competition, the Wall Street Journal arranged a telephone interview.

“Fast forward to Monday after the competition and he’s writing a story about me because I won, which was a great thing,” Genfan said. “First time ever to have a woman in the final 10. Women and girls can certainly play guitar. We can kick butt. So, I read the article on Monday, and there it is in the Wall Street Journal, a kind of big newspaper — ‘Vickie Genfan, who plays a guitar style she calls flap-tap.’

“My heart was all excited about the article, but my eyes just kind of dropped way down. Flap-tap? Be warned if you have to do a telephone interview. It’s s as in Sam, and f as in Frank. They sound alike. At first I thought flap-tap must be a new kind of pancake you get at IHOP. Let’s go to IHOP and have that flap-tap, flap-jack-tap-tack-stack-tap-flap. Yeah, I play guitar — pancake style!”

Raffle winner
Luna Guitars donated an instrument for the Lassen County Arts Council to raffle as a fundraiser, and the raffle tickets sold out. John Galland was the winner.

“Hey John, are you a player? Do you play?” asked Sheehy after the drawing.

“No, I don’t,” Galland said. “A neighbor who plays invited me tonight, and I’ve been enjoying myself. So thank you, Dave and Julie. I already told Dave, I’m coming next door this summer, and I’ve guess I’ve got something to play on and learn.”

“Well, congratulations,” said Sheehy.

Supporting the Janesville music program
Sheehy also encouraged the community to rally behind the endangered Janesville School music program. He said it would cost about $35,000 to continue the program, and the arts council would donate 10 percent of that cost.

“We’re challenging the community to get on the ball and come up with the rest,” Sheehy said. “If the arts council comes up with 10 percent — Plumas Bank, U.S. Forest Service — I know money’s tight, but music is not some kind of throwaway thing. It’s not something we do after the fact, oh yeah, if we have some extra resources. It should be an integral part of all our lives.”