The 15th Anniversary Harp Guitar Gathering: A First Timer’s Experience

As much as I’d love to do my weekly photo blog series to capture the epic 15th Anniversary Harp Guitar Gathering Jaci and I hosted this year, I’m leaving that for others for now.

We start with this epic guest blog from a first timer to the Gathering, and only a second timer to the States!  So please enjoy this special roving report from Tommy Loose, and the photos he chose.  I hope the rest of you who attended will consider adding your own comments and favorite moments afterwards.

HGG15-Friday-261-XLFrom the desk of Mr. Loose:

I’d been to the USA once before. I was a fresh faced 14-year-old and had almost finished learning every single Iron Maiden riff that existed. As far as I was concerned, that was the only stuff worth learning. I’d dabbled around on classical guitar a little before finding rock, but quickly realised it wasn’t my thing (although years later, the technique would become hugely useful). My family and I visited Florida back in 2001. It was sunny, the people were friendly and the music shops twenty times the size of those in the United Kingdom. I loved it and couldn’t wait to return. It would be 16 years later before I would do so, but it was worth the wait. After a 6-week work trip to China over August/September/October, I was very much in need of some sunshine and relaxation. California provided all of that and a whole lot more. The Harp Guitar Gathering #15 2017 was to be a very special week indeed….

HGG15-Friday-260-XLMy fellow 12-string twangin’ amigo from England (Martin Pleass, right) and I flew from Gatwick to Oakland at a pretty sensible time for once. Usually our flights are at some unearthly hour, causing bleary eyed vision upon arrival and monster jet lag. Upon reaching Oakland, we hung around for a while before boarding for San Diego. An American airport is quite an experience for an Englishman. When asked, ‘is that a weapon?’ upon seeing your 5-foot-long flight case, you instantly worry you’ll be carted off and given the rubber glove treatment (not the good kind) before being slung into a cell. But after telling him it was just a guitar and being given the reply, ‘no problem, if it WAS a weapon, you’d need to go to the other queue…’ you quickly realise that things are very different here – and it has to be said, much more efficient than English airports!

We arrived a few days before the HGG started. We figured it would be rude not to soak up a few days of sun and mooch around the local area. And moocheth we did! The sea was crystal clear, the beaches were sandy, people you’d never met were happy to talk to you without being suspicious and best of all, there was actual sunshine. Not just a photo of some sunshine on a hotel wall or on a postcard – actual sunshine! It was magical. I’ve forgotten what it looks like now, of course, but I know it happened. I still have tan lines to prove it.

After a few days of doing our thing around the local area, the other fellow Gatherers started to gather in Carlsbad. People I had known on Facebook for 5 years or more were now shaking my hand and buying me a beer. It was like being at a school reunion but you just didn’t happen to go to the same school. People came from all over the US, England, Japan, Ireland, Australia and France amongst others. After learning that people had come from more than 15 different states, you really start to comprehend how massive the United States actually is (to put it into perspective, most American states are bigger than the whole of England).

Before the HGG actually began, those of us who were there attended the Music of Making Music VIP event for a meet up, a look around the museum and some live music. Randall Sprinkle, Jayne Sprinkle and (Sir) Gregg Miner entertained with some lovely trios and duos, including a wonderful rendition of the ‘Game of Thrones’ theme. It was a lovely chance to meet up with some new folks, check out the actual Museum (a tremendous treasure trove if ever there was one!) and scope out the local area. I picked up several books and bits of swag for my daughter – t-shirts, plectrums and the like. My ‘Museum of Making Music’ t-shirt has now become my regular gym wear, so it’s getting close to being worn out already.

The Friday night took us back to the Museum of Making Music – there was a raffle, a ‘who can make the best Harp Guitar out of Lego’ contest (we lost – I don’t want to talk about it) and a lot more socialising. A bunch of us got up played a tune and got to know more of the fellow gatherers. There was a nice relaxed atmosphere in this lovely venue, which gave us all a real taste of things to come. Such a huge range of instruments, material and personalities. A real treat and a lovely way to spend our first evening of the HGG. It ended at some unearthly hour after many beers and several hours of jamming away with one another on the top floor – this was a recurring theme for much of the week!

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The workshops and live sessions began on the Saturday morning, once again, at the Museum of Making Music – Travis Bowman opened up, with a great batch of tunes and discussion about his compositional work. There were tips and tricks, performances, impromptu jams galore. Hiro from Japan, Andy Wahlberg and John Schneiderman were wonderful examples of just how varied the players of the Harp Guitar truly are, with very different approaches and hugely varied material. Stephen Bennett also treated us to some wonderful arrangements, along with a beautiful vocal version of ‘Wonderful World.’ Unique performances, unique venues, unique people – you couldn’t write these experiences if you tried. There were far too many great players to mention, but some of the ‘treble squad’ as I came to think of them such as Tony Barnard, Brad Hoyt, Claude LaFlamme and Muriel Anderson were terrifying to watch in terms of arrangements and techniques. I’ll have to annoy Alistair at Emerald to build me one of those next – what a life eh .. 😉

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The gig in the Church is something that will stay with me for a very long time. Such a huge venue (we don’t have churches anywhere near this size in the UK) with such an appreciative audience. ‘The Water Is Wide’ played by 40 or so HG’s is quite a sight to behold. A beautiful tune and an amazing experience for everyone involved. A Harp Guitar through a huge PA in a room that size really is something special. When I heard the sound fill the room, it gave me chills and I had to pinch myself on several occasions to remind myself that I was on the other side of the world, playing and listening to this wonderful instrument with a huge group of other people who loved it as much as I did. Moments like those are very rare in life, I’m glad I got to have so many of them throughout the week.

Fancying a quiet one on the final day, I went along to the open mic hosted by Stephen Bennett on the Sunday. I played a few tunes and enjoyed listening to several other players do their thing. A lovely setting and nice and relaxed. Stephen kindly asked me to play the recital that evening too, which was a ton of fun. I learned so much about my own performing and stole endless ideas from others throughout the week. If other people will insist on being so darn good, what choice do I have?!

Besides the actual musical side of things, something that really stood out to me was the family vibe at the Harp Guitar Gathering. People were so willing to give us (and our instruments) lifts – special mention here to Nate Blaustein – Nate has been generous enough to buy hard copies of my albums every year since 2015, so it was especially nice to shake his hand – and be kindly driven around by him in exchange for a Subway sandwich. All of our flights were pretty smooth for the most part too. We got our instruments on and off the planes without too much trouble, although the in-flight entertainment was a little thin on the ground (once you’ve seen the 4th Harry Potter film and a documentary about the end of the world, sleep is the next best option) – we also bumped into Eddie Izzard on the way home. He wasn’t very talkative, but I’m pretty sure that was just due to being tongue tied because he couldn’t believe he got to meet ‘the’ Martin of Pleass. I experienced something similar the first time I met him too … 🙂

There were so many other highlights and many interesting lessons, but a few special mentions have to be the following:

  • Proper American Mac ’n’ Cheese
  • Figuring out how much of a tip to leave
  • Being asked how to ‘speak British’/if I bought my bowler hat/umbrella with me (I left them at home)
  • Meeting a bunch of different luthiers and playing their instruments – some real legends
  • Spontaneous jamming at all times of the day and night
  • Gregg’s presentation of a vast number of historical instruments – the man’s knowledge is scary, a truly humbling experience to absorb some of his enthusiasm and knowledge
  • The sheer variety of the Museum itself and the Mexican food wagon (unreal!)
  • The various workshops and the chance to pick the brains of some of the finest Harp Guitarists on the planet.
  • A wonderful final banquet at The Crossings – a more scenic setting you just couldn’t ask for.

It falls to me to offer an enormous thank you to everyone who made this event happen. I know I’ll forget people if I even start to attempt to name everyone individually. Every staff member, photographer, attendee, musician, behind the scenes folks and anyone else who made this happen – THANK YOU – sincerely. You’ve created something far more special than you realise.

I’m sure I’ll kick myself reading this back and realising I forgot to write about something great – I’m doing it right now and adding another section in fact. But hopefully others will read this and recall their memories of the HGG with a smile, whilst looking forward to the next year.

Connecticut – prepare yourselves – we’ll see you very soon …

(all photo credits to Chuck Thompson – thanks mate!)

Additional photos of the entire event from Chuck Thompson here: FRIDAY PHOTOS SATURDAY PHOTOS SUNDAY PHOTOS

  1. Michael Schreiner Says:

    Well written Mr Loose. You captured the typical Gathering experience perfectly. Thanks for the picture link.
    Michael

  2. John Riley Says:

    Well done Tommy! It was great to meet and spend some time with you.

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