I was introduced to guitar virtuoso Grant Ferguson's music a couple of years ago and have been a fan of his instrumental work ever since. His shows seem to work best in small, intimate venues, as he brings up guest vocalists and interacts with the crowd quite often.
So his early Saturday night show was at the perfect place: the Rhythm Room. Upon my arrival around 6 p.m., the dim lighting washed over a crowd that was already seated at the small tables and the bar, waiting eagerly. It was crowded but not uncomfortably so, and there were only a handful of people under 35.
Grant Ferguson combines melodic classic rock blended with elements of jazz, blues and soul, and his show was almost completely instrumental save for two guest vocalists, Alice Tatum and Rob MacMullan, that came on stage for a handful of songs.
"Thank you so much for coming out!" he said enthusiastically, surveying the crowd, before launching into "Toward the Light" and "April Song" from his 2011 debut album, Decay and Devotion.
Ferguson's influences include such musicians as Jeff Beck, The Edge, Joe Satriani, and Gary Moore, and it shows in his technique. Earlier this year Ferguson put out his second album, Toward the Light, which garnered a lot of great reviews and displays the broad spectrum of his talent.
"I like singing and have respect for singers, but I use the guitar as my singing not my voice," he explained. "But I love working with singers who can add a lot to the band. So I'd like to welcome to the stage Alice Tatum."
Tatum's sultry voice contributed a lot of warmth and seduction to such tracks as "Treat Me Right" and "Love Sneakin' Up." She has been a fixture in the Phoenix music scene for more than 30 years, with projects that range from jazz to pop-inspired dance songs. Before "No Regrets," she about her five kids and introduced the song. "Oh, I do have a few regrets, but we won't talk about those," she joked.
As Tatum stepped off the stage, Ferguson worked slowly into "Dark Soul," a jam with a wonderful guitar lead-in that oozes soul.
"Euphoric Recall" was a crowd favorite from Ferguson's first album, and is reminiscent of early Jeff Beck, but Ferguson has a way of pulling from his influences while still establishing his own brand of classic melodic rock. The song trickled into "Tender Heart," off his second album, which has a Celtic sound to it but still seemed to connect seamlessly to the track before it.
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Halfway through the set Ferguson announced a five-minute break and spent it walking around, chatting to just about everyone before taking the stage again.
Once back on stage, Ferguson brought up one of his music buddies, Sedona-based Rob MacMullan, to debut the song "Bloodlines." MacMullan said he's dabbled in music all over but is currently working on a collaboration with Ferguson. "Bloodlines" circled around a story about ancestry, politics and war.
The song could definitely benefit from a little more practice, acknowledged by MacMullan once it was done. "That was every bit a debut!"
To which Ferguson added, "Rob and I are working on stuff together more often now, which I guess means we should probably rehearse, too."
Then the band launched into a song called "Arizona Skies," about what MacMullan called "a million shades of blue." That song, too, was a little more unpolished than the rest of the set.
The parts of the show I enjoyed most, personally, were the ones that were purely instrumental. A stand-out track was "Led Boots," a drum-focused jam with a walking bassline that just grooved, Ferguson's fingers crawling like the itsy bitsy spider down his fretboard, the entire crowd tapping their feet and nodding their heads. He moved into a few more tracks that were more mellow and jazzy, with each band member partaking in funky solos that reverberated through the entire room.
For the last two songs, Ferguson brought MacMullan back up on the stage. "You know when you have a relationship that burns so bright," he said, "but then it implodes and you get spit out the back end? But during the bright part it's just so amazing? That's what this song is about."
The song name described its sound and feeling perfectly: "Irresistable."
Throughout the set, the other musicians in the band watched Ferguson eagerly during his solos, with enthusiasm and respect. And the energy in the room was really only the type of energy you can get from seasoned musicians and a crowd that celebrates the glory days of instrumental music.
Setlist: Toward the Light April Song Treat Me Right Dark Soul Euphoric Recall Tender Heart Love Sneakin' Up Memorial Day Bloodlines Arizona Skies Led Boots Stratus Irresistible Shimmer
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Critic's Notebook: What: Grant Ferguson at Rhythm Room on November 16 The Crowd: Mostly people in their 30s and 40s, including a group of gypsy women in long colorful skirts with leopard tights and cowboy boots. Overheard in the Crowd: "I love that about jazz! You never know where it's gonna go!" during "Led Boots." Personal Bias: Ferguson's music is great for anyone who loves instrumental work, or just plain loves seeing the guitar in all its glory.