Photography: Glyn Akroyd / @GlynAkroyd
Floral Pavilion

As the INTERNATIONAL GUITAR FESTIVAL hits its 26th year we thought it would be a good idea to check out a few of the, as always, varied artists on offer, kicking off with festival favourite and veteran purveyor of pop, ROY WOOD.

Wood’s career as a writer of some distinction is often overshadowed by the annual tinselfest of I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday (an appalling prospect but a jolly old earworm of a song). Wood’s back catalogue runs to the early-60s and encompasses the darkly psyched pop of The Move, the baroque orchestration of early ELO and the glam accessories of Wizzard, alongside some eclectic solo recordings before settling into the relative comfort of the rock n’ roll revue that he is currently touring.

Cut from a totally different cloth is classical guitarist ELEFTHERIA KOTZIA. She is currently Professor of Music at the Royal Welsh College of Music and a glance at a Savarez (a guitar string manufacturer) biog reveals a dizzying itinerary of worldwide festivals, symposiums, workshops and collaborations over several decades. An ardent promoter of the music of her native Greece, she is also committed to showcasing music from sources as diverse as Persia, South America and the Balkans. That eclecticism is much in evidence for tonight’s Mediterranean Journey, but she starts, fittingly, at home, with Four Epitaphs by Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis (he of Zorba The Greek fame). The Blue Room at the Floral is just about full and suitably hushed as Kotzia immediately reveals a delightful delicacy of touch during the gentle progressions of Locks Of My Hair, the first of the epitaphs.

We travel East for a beautiful Persian Ballad by Aziz Joon, which begins with the most delicate of plucked melodies before running wild with some thrilling pizzicato flourishes. Over to the Balkans for Tadic’s Walk Dance, which picks up the tempo with complex, fiery finger work at both ends of the fretboard punctuated by chords passionately slashed.

There is something calmly commanding about Kotzia’s stage presence, even her re-tuning is done with a minimum of fuss – where some artists feel the need to fill in these potentially awkward silences with anecdotal bluster, Kotzia is confident enough to allow the audience time for reflection. During some of the pieces, there even are periods of unhurried silence in which she seems to focus ever more intently, head held high, the crowd holding a collective breath until she bows forward to begin the next section with quicksilver virtuosity.

Playing with a quiet intensity, her head is bowed so low at times that her breath must cloud the burnished shoulder of her guitar – it’s as though she can barely hear the subtleties of her own playing and the audience respond with a hushed reverence punctuated after each piece by joyful applause.

“It’s funky, it’s jazzy, and the playing, once again at this festival, is virtuosic”

ESMOND SELWYN returns to the festival following last year’s superb show, not with a band this year but as a duettist with blues-jazz singer TERRI SHALTIEL. Selwyn shares with Kotzia an exceptional technique and feeling, capable of elevating the emotional impact of the music rather than supressing it, and, once again, he demonstrates his ability to bend a well-known melody completely out of shape before bringing it back to its recognisable form. He kicks things off with standards Blue Monk and Moonlight In Vermont, the lovely, gentle swing of the latter perfectly relayed, Selwyn inscrutable, channelling all emotion through those flying fingers into the music.

Shaltiel, having taken a seat in the audience after Selwyn has begun playing, takes to the stage quipping, “I’ll start with Just In Time, in an ironic sense,” before revealing a lovely lightness of touch in classic jazz chanteuse style.

It’s a stripped-back pairing that puts both performers firmly in the spotlight, but they appear totally relaxed and their between song dialogue is of the “what shall we play next?”, “let’s try…”, “what key’s it in?” school of stagecraft, almost as if the audience weren’t there at times, but there seems to be a quirky connection between the two. They invest Bobby Hebbs’ Sunny with a bluesy swing, Shaltiel’s voice easy on the ear, Selwyn’s restless solo flying in all directions.

Shaltiel has proved herself to be an extremely diverse talent, providing the bluesy swagger of Vinegar Joe-era Elkie Brooks, the fragile confessional of Billie Holiday, and the sweet soul of Aretha – a dynamic foil for Selwyn’s fluid, masterful, sometimes challenging, explorations of the jazz songbook. The audience lap it up.

And so to SOFT MACHINE; 51 years (give or take a couple of breaks) and several incarnations later, the Canterbury psych-folk-cum-jazz-fusion experimentalists are in town with three of their mid-70s line-up (John Etheridge on guitar; John Marshall on drums; Roy Babbington on bass) plus sax player Theo Travis.

This line-up has been together for a few years as Soft Machine Legacy, and they waste no time in persuading the crowd of aficionados that this will be an evening well spent. The titular track from 1975’s Bundles kicks things off, followed by 2003’s In The Back Room, which gives each musician the chance to show off his chops amid myriad tempo changes and soloing. A rippling Etheridge guitar slows beautifully as Travis takes it down with a smoky sax solo – it’s funky, it’s jazzy, it rocks, and the playing, once again at this festival, is virtuosic.

Etheridge proves to be an engaging host and he heaps fulsome praise on band members old and new(ish), particularly founder member Mike Ratledge whose songs Chloe And The Pirates and The Man Who Waved At Trains are beautifully, ethereally translated here. The former features a delightful Travis flute solo played over washes of guitar, the latter, running at less than two minutes on the original album, is here given an extended reworking that really allows Marshall and Babbington to hit a groove.

Given the audience demographic at the above shows, it seems that the challenge facing the organisers of the festival is to attract a younger crowd who can carry the festival forwards. One thing is clear though, the International Guitar Festival seems to have no trouble in continuing to attract performers of the very highest quality to our parish.

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