Claude Bourbon

Folk Club Atmosphere

This event felt like an English folk club night. I haven’t been to a folk club in Canada since finding one in the Canadian Legion in Kingston, Ontario, 8 years ago. They hardly seem to exist here. The entertainer had the audience’s undivided attention. All the nuances and intricacies of the music were communicated. Everyone seemed to know each other. There was a potential for embarrassment.

However, if the musician(s) know what they’re doing, a great night can be had, even if there aren’t many listeners. A couple of friends in England who go to folk clubs leant me a Claude Bourbon disc a few years ago. When I saw he was playing in a second hand bookshop on College Street, Toronto, I resolved to check it out.

Displaced Frenchman?

First let it be said that, despite being advertised as ‘from the UK’, Claude sounds French. He does not sing or say a great deal but no words are wasted. The lyrics are kind of rudimentary, English not being his first language, but somehow that helps. They have the folk/blues vocabulary which, along with the backdrop of books helped to create an ancient spell.

Claude’s singing reminds me of Mark Knopfler. That is to say, you wouldn’t want to hear him sing an album of jazz standards but it’s perfectly adequate and appropriate for the music he’s doing. It has that natural, unschooled quality which is redolent of rural blues.

Eclectic Virtuoso

There is so much more than blues in his guitar playing though. Bourbon plays fingerstyle with a massive thumbnail. He works in the tradition of Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, Adrian Legg and Michael Keith. It’s worth emphasizing that you have to be extremely good to do this. Melody, harmony and bass all have to be represented and that requires brilliant technique.

Like the players mentioned above, Claude was slipping many traditional folk tunes into his own flights of fancy. Also some trad jazz, some Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Ravel and Bach. The boundaries were being broken down, and it benefited everyone that he was not stuck in a stylistic niche.

Stretching It

‘How to Stretch It’ is a blues full of lyrical double entendres which I remembered from his CD ‘Merci, Thank You’. But it got to a point in the solo where he dispensed with chords 4 and 5. He just reiterated the low E on the bottom string with that giant thumbnail and played rapid chromatic figures up and down the neck with his other fingers.

The woman in front of us turned round wide-eyed and whispered something like ‘Oh my God, did you see that?!’ Of course music isn’t all about pyrotechnics and gimmicks but maybe she was only giving credit where it was due. Apart from a delay pedal, there weren’t any effects used. Nor were any chord or lyric sheets referred to. Just centuries of music distilled on a Gibson guitar.

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