What do you get when you cross a former world-class gymnast with an ex-corporate lawyer? a) A pommel horse champ looking for a hostile takeover of the high bars, b) a white-collar shyster with the strength and flexibility to bend around the rules of law, or c) a pair of acoustic guitar devotees obsessed with finding the true, honest sound of steel strings under high tension.
The answer, as you have surely surmised, is c. Larry Pattis, the gymnast, and El McMeen, the lawyer, hooked up in 1997 through an Internet musician’s chat room and began a journey that quickly became “A Fingerstyle Guitar Odyssey: Celtic to Contemporary,” a series of short tours that has taken them and their acoustic message from sea to shining sea.
As evidenced by their most recent releases, these guys are no mere second-career hacks. Pattis’ Random Chance showcases song after evenly-paced song of clear and resonant mastery, while McMeen’s The Lea Rig features the deep, lyrical quality of his low-C tuning swirling in a mix of traditional Celtic instruments. In fact, their respective talents have drawn raves from industry mags like Guitar Player, Fingerstyle Guitar and Jam Music, and The New York Times Herald-Record recently wrote: “El McMeen and Larry Pattis are changing the face of acoustic guitar. … Maybe you’re under the impression that it’s all just Flamenco, Folk, or Classical. Go have a listen and you’ll change your mind.”
Pattis and McMeen are certainly cognizant of the challenge of bringing instrumental music to a public increasingly taken by the stylings of singer-songwriters, singer-dancers, singer-strippers, et al. But they’re quick to point out that music doesn’t have to be accompanied by lyrics to tell a story. “What we do is not what I would call, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, ‘new-age noodling,’” says Pattis. “The music that we play, whether it’s my original pieces or a traditional piece, is always about something. What we do is hopefully as pointed and direct a story as anything a contemporary singer-songwriter would do.”
To that end, Pattis and McMeen regularly engage the audience between songs, telling stories about the origins and meanings of the songs they play and about the events that comprise their own Odyssey. “It’s much harder as an instrumentalist to reach an audience than it is for a singer-songwriter, so the stories help to give the audience a context,” says McMeen. “But we think it’s a good thing for us, because if you realize that it’s a difficult endeavor, you spend a lot of time dealing with two important aspects. The first is that the music is a good channel for our emotions. Nothing we do is tossed off as filler. The second is how you make the music engrossing for the audience, and that really involves a large percentage of guitar technique. How do you render music on a guitar? Playing loud and soft, playing cleanly, how you use slide, that kind of stuff. It’s something we reflect on a lot.”
Part of that equation includes a highly-evolved sound system to ensure that the audience hears exactly what the musicians play.
“Because of the subtle nuance of steel-string guitar, the quietest, most subtle points of our music need amplification,” says Pattis. “I’ve been in the music business for a long time, and if I can brag in a modest way—is that possible?—there isn’t anybody out there that gets better sound than us, in any setting.”
Asked if they face challenges inherent to odysseys in general, Pattis says, “If there were to be a Cyclops, it would be getting a surprise at the occasional gig, where maybe the restaurant has an open kitchen adjacent to the kitchen area and our sound suddenly includes barking cooks.” As for the renowned sirens, Pattis adds that “We have a lot of friends in the touring community, and some of those fellows are looking for certain things when out on the road. El and I are, in fact, happily married, not to each other, although sometimes it feels that way out on the road.”
McMeen isn’t so quick to dismiss the presence of sirens, though. “The cops, when Larry’s driving, there’s bound to be some sirens there,” he chuckles.