Guitarmageddon

Michael Kelsey experiments at Peach’s

by Matt Clevenger

Photo: Dulcimer player Butch Ross strums his way to Taffy’s; photo: Trish Wileman

Using only a few electronic effects and his trusty Taylor 615 acoustic, Indianapolis-based recording artist Michael Kelsey has spent decades pushing the boundaries of guitar playing and creating a musical career built on creativity and inspired improvisation.

Well-known for making up songs on the spot and incorporating found objects into his act as instruments, Nuvo Magazine called Kelsey a “fearless experimenter,” and folk artist David Wilcox once referred to his unique one-man show as “Cirque Du Soleil on acoustic guitar.”

A veteran performer with seven studio albums to his credit, Kelsey was named the winner of Guitar Center’s national “Guitarmageddon” contest, and was selected from more than 3,000 entrants to play at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads 2004. In his spare time, he also leads educational music programs for children of all ages at schools in both the Dayton and Springfield areas.

Kelsey will appear at Peach’s Bar and Grill in Yellow Springs this Friday, July 1. Dayton City Paper caught up with him recently, for a revealing conversation on guitars, gadgets and how to keep your cool even while improvising.

How did you get started
playing guitar?

MK: I wanted to be a drummer, and I was trying to learn as much as I could from books and friends. My mother played guitar, but she only knew three chords. It always sounded complete—the rhythm, chords, and melody of her voice. She started teaching me when I was 10-years-old, and eventually she sent me to lessons. The guitar just seemed like the perfect vehicle to the world of music.

What other instruments do
you play?

MK: Whatever I can get my hands on. I am always tying to be a better bass player, drummer, and keyboardist because these things also help my perspective on playing guitar.

Do you have a favorite guitar
to play?

MK: I have almost always used my jumbo Taylor guitar out live because I got molded to it over the years. I know its potential and its quirks. At home I enjoy playing and recording with many guitars because they will bring different things out of you. I learn to embrace not getting to attached to routines. “Safe and sound” can be a passion killer.

How would you describe your live show, for those who haven’t seen it?

MK: It is the spirit of music I am throwing out rather than a style of music. Staying open to the moment is very important to me. So a lot of improv will happen. Talking to the audience and creating something around one of their stories or experiences is my way of saying, “I am here in this moment with you.” If I came to a show only executing my practiced material I would feel like it was an opportunity missed.

Can you describe some of the effects/electronics that you use at your shows?

MK: I have always been interested in audio recording as much as music, so incorporating electronics feels very natural. “Loopers” allow me to record in the moment and playback. That could be the guitar, the voice, the audience and/or their personal belongings. The electronic gadgets add another dimension to the experience. Fun stuff.

You are known for your fearless live performances, often improvising in front of large crowds. Do you have any secret tricks for avoiding stage fright or anxiety?

MK: If I were to do something out of my element, I would most likely feel awkward and self-conscious. The reason I get excited about performing live is because I am sharing the things that move me the most. So I guess the tip to feeling comfortable on stage would be know what “your” element is and nurture that. Everything else falls into place.

In addition to performing, you also work with schools doing music education programs. Can you describe some of your teaching work?

MK: The common theme in my live shows is expressing creativity. A while back a teacher, at a show, asked me to come to their class. I realized the same thing I was doing to entertain people was the same thing that works to inspire and foster creativity in students. I have been a part of the Muse Machine in Dayton and Project Jericho at Clark State in Springfield for many years.

How do you think your sound has changed or evolved over the years?

MK: Like all of us… maturing, refining, and evolving. Time seems to smooth the edges. I always feel more musical with each year that goes by.

Do you think that you will ever get bored with the guitar as an instrument, or finally exhaust all of its musical capabilities?

MK: It solves itself. The moment I get bored I automatically move into a direction that excites me. It is infinite. I could never explore all of its possibilities… but I am trying.

Michael Kelsey will perform Friday, July 1 at Peach’s Grill, 104 Xenia Ave. in Yellow Springs. There is no cover. Show starts at 10 p.m. For more information, please visit peachsgrill.com or michaelkelsey.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Matt Clevenger at MattClevenger@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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