Being a solo musician is a difficult proposition. Without the benefit of band mates to add variety and texture to a show, keeping an audience's attention can be tricky at best, next to impossible at worst.
For instrumentalists, the danger of a monotone performance is even greater. And if the artist is foreign, the language barrier easily could be the fatal third strike to their chances of winning over an audience.
Earlier this evening on the Unum Stage, Beppe Gambetta turned all these seeming disadvantages to his favor, putting on a show that was at turns amusing, impressive and engaging.
To fans who had seen the Genoan flat-picking guitarist perform locally in Barking Legs Theater's acoustic sitting room, this probably came as no surprise. To those who wandered to the stage by chance or to satisfy their curiosity about the seemingly incongruous combination of an Italian flatpicker, however, the show was undoubtedly a pleasant surprise.
Wearing a white shirt with sleeves rolled back and his trademark red leather shoes, Gambetta took the stage under a sun whose brutal heat he seemed to find surprising.
"What a brave audience to sit there in the sun," he said, in an opening quip before launching into a Spanish-inflected song from his back catalog. It might not have been new, but the piece put Gambetta's nimble fingers and intricate picking hand on full display, helping to fill a few of previously empty chairs fronting the stage.
Whereas some musicians neglect the not-so-subtle art of showmanship during their shows, Gambetta seemed to recognize that a solo guitarist didn't have that luxury and all but oozed charm and humor during his set. Before each selection, he paused to tell jokes or stories to provide context to his music, often while simultaneously fighting a constant battle to remain tuned in the face of the heat and humidity.
For all that he occasionally searched for the right word or landed just shy of proper pronunciation, his linguistic foibles seemed to help, rather than hinder, his connection with the audience, who seemed genuinely won well before he was halfway through. After only a handful of selections, every seat at the stage was filled and a knot of people had stopped on the parkway like they'd been captured in a six-string fly trap.
Although he is best known for his picking prowess, Gambetta is also a talented vocalist, and his set included selections sung in both English and his native Italian dialect. Of these, the strongest by far was "Margeretin," a late-set Italian ballad he composed "about a woman who dances so well everyone in the village falls in love with her."
For all its easy, subtle beginnings, Gambetta performed a blistering instrumental interlude that elicited more than a few whoops from the crowd.
The songs helped break up a set of primarily instrumental music, but Gambetta is easily at his finest when his hands are doing the talking. Standouts from his guitar showpieces included "The Acadian Dream," a slower piece full of melancholy and wanderlust, and "Dixie Breakdown," a brisk piece inspired by bluegrass banjo.
One of the more interesting selections was "The Nine Years Waltz," a gorgeous piece written - but never recorded - by North Georgia flatpicking legend Norman Blake, one of Gambetta's idols. The soothing strains of the tune, adapted for the guitar but written for the mandolin, were like a digestif after an evening full of fiery virtuosity.
Gambetta's set was excellently balanced between fast and slow pieces, ballads and instrumentals, older material and selections from his recently released album, "The American Album." The dynamics kept it interesting, and managed, against all odds, to give a one-man guitar show a magnetic quality more often associated with larger, more grandiose acts.
Although he is a self-described acolyte of guitar legends such as Tony Rice and Doc Watson - he ended with a blistering tribute to the recently deceased flatpicker - Gambetta's talent has earned him a place in their figurative company. He is undeniably a guitar guy, but more importantly, the audience left knowing that he's a people person, too.
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205.