Bohemian rhapsody 

Tony Furtado
  • Tony Furtado

Tony Furtado adds keys to new five-piece band

Who: Tony Furtado and The American Gypsies

Where: Boot Pub

When: May 11

You might call him the gypsy.

He travels, returns home to write for a while, then travels again in search of new sights and sounds.

Award-winning banjo player Tony Furtado switches from banjo to slide guitar with his new five-piece outfit, Tony Furtado and the American Gypsies.

Furtado rounded up his music news and thoughts via cell phone from Richland, Washington, one stop on his current three-week West Coast tour.

"I have even more freedom with (the American Gypsies lineup), being able to weave in and out of different rhythms," he says.

That musical freedom mixes a heavy drums influence with both quieter ballads and New Orleans rhythms; from old Delta to hill country blues that brings sounds of his favourite acoustic folk blues artist Taj Mahal, instrumentalist David Lindley, and the twang of Ry Cooder, who plays everything from blues to Mexican music.

"I’m still trying to come up with a way to describe the music," he says. "What grabs me is the old-time Appalachian folk music."

Furtado’s bluegrass expertise, which saw him win the National Bluegrass Banjo Championships in 1987, at the age of 19, and again in 1991, is one aspect of a larger musical repertoire.

This new band incorporates a self-dubbed "American roots" sound with a touch of South Delta blues, folk, and funk.

And Furtado has no problem attracting well-honed musicians to play in his bands. Grammy winning dobro player Sally Van Meter played with his former outfit, the Tony Furtado Band.

Playing alongside Furtado in the American Gypsies is Myron Dove on bass (he handles other instruments when he’s with the band Santana), Tom Brechtlein on drums, Paul McCandles on horns, and John R. Burr (of the Alison Brown Quartet) on keys. In addition to slide guitar Furtado handles the vocals.

The keys are more prominent and there’s less instrumental influence with the American Gypsies than there was in the Tony Furtado Band.

Festivals have been a popular venue for Furtado’s music, and will continue to be with the Gypsies.

Last summer the Tony Furtado Band played the Silverton Jubilee Folk Music Festival, the Four Corners Music Fest in Pagosa Springs, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

A fan of Blind Willie Johnson and Ry Cooder, Furtado has also toured with Alison Krauss, Tim O’Brien, and Laurie Lewis.

The subjects of his songs vary like the patterns of a batik scarf. Rawleigh and Spencer is a song about "everything from dying to eating friend chicken," in North Carolina. False Hearted Lovers Blues is a re-working of an age-old theme of heartbreak.

Furtado’s music has been described different ways. He has been called a "middle-aged bluegrass musician from the old school" and "a guy in his mid-50s." Neither is accurate.

What is definite is that music was meant to be his life.

When he began playing banjo at age 11 and practising for hours a day, his parents suspected something was up.

In his college years he took sculpture and music at California State University-Hayward. He likens music-making to the applied arts, like moulding a piece of clay.

"I’ve been studying a lot of poetry lately, and (making music) is almost like you’re sculpting words and music, adding and taking away until you come up with something that is a statement of yourself from within," he says.

While banjo was the first instrument he played, it was slide guitar that appealed next. To really master slide guitar, he moved back home with his parents, in California.

"I just woodshedded (for two years) and played every little coffee house and farmers market I could. I felt like Woody Guthrie," he told the San Jose Mercury News.

With the American Gypsies, Furtado has changed management and a new album is due out this summer. He’s also recently changed addresses himself, moving from Boulder, Colorado to Portland, Oregon.

"I actually prefer the rain and the misty climate, as I grew up in Northern California," he says.

Snow or sunshine, catch the jangling sounds Saturday night.

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