From the desk of Gregg Miner:
Dave Evans, fingerstyle guitar cult hero to many, passed away peacefully in his sleep at 3 AM on April 4th. He was 80 years old, and had lived an undeniably rich and colorful life, full of friends and love.
Rather than an obituary, this is a celebration. Mostly, it’s my personal story about how Dave’s music, then the man himself, came into my life. I think Dave would approve…
Like many of you, I’ve had lots of guitar heroes over the years: Leo Kottke, Django Reinhardt, Allan Holdsworth, too many to count…
But ever since picking up a copy of his Sad Pig Dance LP, Dave Evans was my guy.
I learned that entire album (Kicking Mule Records kindly included a booklet with half the tunes in tab!) and it informed my own style more than anything else before or since. My own “home tuning” would replicate Dave’s famous low C tuning (CGDGAD; he utilized many others).
Back in the day, trying to learn and play a Kottke tune was exhausting. But, while intricate and challenging, Dave’s style just seemed natural. His pieces were fun little finger-puzzles for the hands and a constant treat for the ear. He was so lyrical, so imaginative and original, so quirky! I think that was when I also permanently stopped playing consecutive notes on one string; like Dave, I would find every possible Campanella fingering for everything I wrote and played from that time forward. Quite simply, no one tickled my fancy like Dave, with that technique and his harmonic and melodic surprises at every turn. While often lumped in with the late ‘60s English fingerstyle acoustic guitar scene, he stood firmly apart. No one wrote tunes like him (and lovely poetic songs, too!). And Dave came totally out of the blue; he didn’t even pick up a guitar until he was 23!
My “Dave Evans period” started when I was 20 and went full blast for a few years. I would eventually move on to other music and other instruments, but I would still pick up a guitar and play some of those tunes a decade or two later.
Cut to 2007. My friend Frank Doucette – another huge Dave Evans fan – had been attending Stephen Bennett’s Harp Guitar Gatherings (the “HGG”) as I had – for four years at that point. Players and builders are both a part of it, one of the latter being our special friend and inimitable Brussels luthier Benoit Meulle-Stef. In July, my wife Jaci and I took our first vacation to Belgium and visited Ben at his home/playroom/store/workshop (that’s from the top down in his amazing 3-story+various-mezzanines-building). Back home in the States, fall was quickly approaching. We’d soon be heading to Virginia for HGG5…
…when Ben told us that Dave Evans might be coming with him to the Gathering. What? Why? How?! (is what) Frank and I blurted via email, after which Ben casually dropped the bombshell, “Oh, Dave is doing guitar repairs at my shop…”! It took us a while to pick our jaws up off the floor as we processed that, Ben providing his usual underwhelming detail (i.e.: none).
The Gathering was only weeks away, but for some misguided reason I decided that I simply must “surprise” Dave with a harp guitar arrangement of his classic “Sad Pig Dance” tune. I re-learned it (thank god for muscle memory!) and moved things around a bit to add sub-basses…and…
…it’s October 26th, 2007 and Dave Evans is standing in front of me. Bespectacled and soft-spoken with a Welsh accent (hints of Bristol and notes of Belgium), his voice reminiscent of a warm fuzzy bee (the resonant baritone variety) buzzing in one’s ears and enveloping your heart. He knew my (Harpguitars.net) reputation but likely had no idea of the major fan I was. But it was Friday Open Mic Night and he was about to find out!
Well, I gave a long, emotional, nerdy introduction and made it through his tune on pure adrenaline. Frank said he muttered something overly charitable like “That’s the way it should have been played”…and I got the first of Dave’s patented hugs.
Gregg, Dave & Frank at the 5th Harp Guitar Gathering
Yes, he was kind and loving to all and thoroughly enjoyed the weekend. I’m sure others have memories and stories of their own (please add them in the Comments field). Frank said he was treated to a pile of tab and an unreleased live CD that Dave had brought for him (Frank had sent him a rabid fan email). I also remember the inebriated Sunday night wrap party at SB’s home and Frank goading me into trying to remember Dave’s tune “Stagefright.” As Dave seemed amused, I struggled through that, laughing when the weird middle part came up and shouting “Dave – what the hell were you thinking?!”
(That’s Mike Doolin and Nancy Conescu opposite entertaining Don Alder. The late Dennis Mitchell is at upper right. Bob Hartman’s enjoying the cacophony in the back while his wife Carol waits patiently for something she can dance to.)
At the end of that event, we could only hope we might see Dave again. (We would, read on!)
Dave’s Recordings and Bits of Biography
It was only after Frank and I started hanging out together in Los Angeles that he caught me up on all the rare out-of-print Dave Evans albums. I got everything I could (rare copies or burns) and fell in love all over again.
His first – 1971’s The Words In Between – was recorded with two mics straight to a reel-to-reel Revox at the Bristol home studio of Ian A. Anderson (folk music producer, not the Jethro Tull leader). Dave would have been 30 and – I did the math – had only been playing guitar for eight years! Yet Dave “arrived” fully-fledged.
After his schooling (location unknown; Dave was born in Bangor, in northwest Wales), he famously spent five years as “Third Mate in the Merchant Navy, crawling over the Indian Ocean in a sluggish tub of a cargo ship.” There was evidently not a guitar in sight, or Dave would surely have tried playing it.
According to his track notes on Sad Pig Dance, he stayed with a friend overlooking the Atlantic for a week “who taught me how to play.” That was “Morocco John” (the friend, and the tune). He also ran the local folk club while at Loughborough Art College beginning in 1963. Here, he would later share a flat with singer-guitarist Steve Tilston (it was Steve who would encourage to Dave to write songs and years later ask him to play second guitar on his Ian Anderson-produced album – which led directly to Dave’s first album). Dave would turn 23 in December of that year, so presumably the combination of friend John, then Steve and his folk club experience fast-tracked his incredibly fleet, intricate abilities on fingerstyle guitar.
While he would now play guitar in earnest, it was always mainly in his off hours. His time between the Art College days with Steve and his later Bristol recordings with Steve seem to shape up like this:
After college, he seems to have continued his wanderlust, at some point living on a house boat. For three years or so (roughly 1968-1971) he lived in Honiton in Devon County, where he was employed as a designer at Honiton Pottery (he would later return to pottery). Meanwhile, all this time he was into wine-making (he would later famously return to beer-making in Brussels). Immediately after he finished his album for Ian Anderson in Bristol, he went back to Honiton, intending to continue his old job as if nothing unusual had happened. When he was promptly fired instead, he headed straight back to Bristol. He soon got a job with the City Highway Department by day and a folk-singing gig at night. Dave said he could finish his civic duties early and manage to get an extra few hours of guitar practice in. His neighborhood near City Road would provide many new eccentric characters to provide grist for his colorful songs. Thus, he would become a part of the burgeoning British folk scene with other famous fingerstylists.
In his second year in Bristol – 1972 – Dave bought his own reel-to-reel and recorded his second album himself. Again released on Anderson’s Village Thing independent label, this was Elephantasia. Neither Frank or I have a copy – it has never been reissued and is impossible to find. The reason appears to be that Dave’s tape deck had 2 speeds – so he gleefully experimented with some multitrack pieces with double-speed guitar. Others were said to have been an Evans form of “Prog Rock” (fascinating!) and were deemed too “dated” to re-release. Happily, the 30th Anniversary CD release of The Words In Between included 5 of the 10 songs from Elephantasia (including one high-speed guitar experiment). That entire 15-song album can be heard on YouTube, and if you prefer to pay for your music, you can download Words at Bandcamp.
Dave’s whereabouts for the next eight or so years are not known. We presume he stayed in Bristol, but went often in London to record for his next several projects.
Sad Pig Dance came next in 1974, produced by the great Stefan Grossman and released on his Kicking Mule Records label. It was his only entirely-instrumental album, and the only one to remain commonly available.
In 1975, Grossman put together Contemporary Guitar Workshop, a kind of a “state of the art” of fingerstyle guitar at the time. Dave contributed five brand new tunes, which can be heard there and also on the later CD release of Sad Pig Dance.
Dave’s final solo album, Take a Bite Out of Life, came out in 1976 (again on Kicking Mule) and found him back in poetic song-writing mood.
Those strictly into instrumental-only fingerstyle guitar still owe it to themselves to put on headphones and listen to all of Dave’s records. Because here’s a secret well known to all his fans: Every single song has the same wonderful guitar arrangements played (live!) effortlessly underneath as he sings. It’s as if we’re listening to two musicians. One is Dave the singer, who emotes his lyrics with a strong melody. The other is Dave the virtuoso guitarist, who simultaneously plays a very different, fully-complimentary fingerstyle part. Fully half of these could literally stand on their own as separate instrumentals. Of course, sophisticated fingerstyle accompaniment wasn’t unique to Dave – many of the late ‘60s players were discovering and fomenting this style. But Dave’s parts always seemed to go that extra mile. Even the simplest of Dave’s “accompaniments” contain more hooks, twists and melodies than 90% of fingerstyle guitar instrumentals composed (I use that word euphemistically) today.
Celtic fingerstyle guitar fans (of which I am a huge one) got a final treat when the first-ever “Irish music” guitar compilation came out in 1979. Irish Reels, Jigs, Hornpipes & Airs brought Dave back for four classic traditional tunes and one original. Dave’s arrangements are full of pull-offs, hammer-ons and cross-string harp effects, particularly effective as three of his arrangements are of O’Carolan harp tunes. According to Ian Anderson, Dave was among the very “first to experiment with O’Carolan’s Irish tunes on guitar, influencing players as diverse as France’s Pierre Bensusan and America’s Duck Baker in the process.” After recording his pieces in London and before the album was released, Dave had moved – permanently, it turned out – to Belgium.
In 1991, several of Dave’s Sad Pig Dance tracks appeared on the Shanachie CD compilation The Art of Fingerstyle Guitar. But by this time, Dave had long ago disappeared from the music business. Or had he?
The rumors were that at some point Dave had suffered an undisclosed hand injury and stopped playing – though continued to build guitars and do repairs while returning to pottery, cooking and beer-making. But the CDR burn and notes that Frank received from Dave at HGG5 told a different story. The recording was an unreleased live album titled Dave Evans Live at the Travers from a 1992 performance! And it was wonderful. It was as guitar-virtuosic and full of lyrical poetry as anything in his ‘70s career. In it, we can hear Dave giving a quiet “hum” to himself at the close of some of his songs. It’s as if he is in the room with us – his way of showing his love for the tune, for the audience who gratefully listened, for us.
(Dave kindly gave Frank permission to share this priceless gem with others. We are working on those details.)
So, it seems Dave hadn’t quite retired from live performing. YouTuber “Bristol Ron” saw Dave back in Bristol and filmed him performing “Sad Pig Dance” (with some subtle rhythmic variations) on February 15th, 1993. (UPDATE: Bristol Ron has a whole series from this concert here.)
(UPDATE: For more information on Dave’s career and life, see the many truly wonderful comments below from friends, fans and relatives.)
As remarkable as his music but even more surprising was the fact that Dave built the guitars he played and recorded with in the early 1970s. No one did that back then. You begged, borrowed and stole, then went to the guitar store and bought a guitar. Period. (Or, like most of us, you first got used hand-me-downs from older brothers and neighborhood kids headed off to college.)
We see what is alleged to be his first home-made guitar in his Feb 28 1975 performance of “Stagefright” (above) on the British television show Old Grey Whistle Test, Dave played this striking blue-green instrument with a unique headstock. Evans fan Stefano Bertoncello said on his 2009 Twogoodears blog that this was built in 1968. An anonymous commenter on that post wrote in 2018: “I knew Dave when I was a student at Loughborough University in the late 60s. He was building guitars and composing the songs that later became his first two albums.” Dave later completely modified this guitar, stripping the finish and making a microtonal fretboard. (UPDATE: As my friend Abaji writes in the Comments, Dave eventually put the neck back to normal frets, then gave the formerly-green fantastic-sounding instrument to Abaji. Fans will be happy to know that Dave’s other instruments will be going to other friends he specified to Benoit.)
Even more striking was his “Rectangular bouts” guitar with which he recorded 1976’s Take a Bite Out of Life. He plays it also in this YouTube clip of the opening song from the album.
Being both harp guitar and Pierre Bensusan fans, Frank and I knew that Dave had continued to build instruments – as Pierre had famously commissioned an outrageous harp guitar from Dave with seventeen sub-basses!
I’m sure many of us would kill to hear Pierre on Dave’s harp guitar. Alas, the instrument has gone unused. Frank and I used to try to cajole Pierre into playing or recording something with it, but it wasn’t to be (he told Frank that the 6-string is how he makes his living and if he played harp guitar he’d want to play it all the time to create something special with it. He also wanted all the chromatic bass notes, but admitted it was too much to look down at that sea of strings!).
The Harp Guitar Gathering must have inspired Dave the luthier. When he came back two years later, he had a brand new harp guitar with him. It was somewhat similar to Pierre’s, but with a sensible seven subs (Ben’s preferred number, which surely influenced him. Dave also adopted Ben’s preferred bolt-on neck design, agreeing it simplified things greatly; this harp guitar’s two necks can be easily removed). It had a significantly domed top and back, and gave us all a hint of what Pierre’s must sound like (very different and very wonderful).
We were thrilled to see Dave as part of the Luthier panel, and boy, do I now wish we had videotaped that.
L-R: Benoit Meulle-Stef, Mike Doolin, Dave, Duane Noble, Dennis Mitchell (d. 2018), Jim Worland and Rich Mermer.
It was even cooler seeing Dave among the harp guitar players for the concert’s “Water is Wide” grand finale:
Once again, I simply had too little time with Dave over the weekend. I envy other’s experiences, especially highlights like this one:
Dave in a duet with Stacy Hobbs and Stace’s two Larsons!
Visiting Historic Williamsburg. Dave, Benoit, Joe and Linda Morgan, me, Jaci (Rohr, my wife).
Even more appropriate here; three of the six are no longer with us: Dave, Hiro Takai (1963−2018) and SB’s 3-legged dog Ben.
Fortunately, we were blessed with Dave twice more! (Hiro would make it back two more times also – for HGG10 & HGG15.)
Dave came back two years later when we had switched the location to Milford, CT (Stephen Bennett’s new home). He brought back the same harp guitar, which received the SB “Luthier Challenge” treatment (above), along with all the other builders’ latest instruments.
Above, watching Stephen play it. Look how Dave is just beaming with pride!
Dave’s last Gathering was a great one – HGG10 in Dallas!
In a then-record-setting finale, Hiro is front and center, while Dave is off at right.
Another personal memory, if I may. Back at HGG7, I played an all-too-rare new original tune (from my Dogs CD), after which Dave sidled up, locked eyes and buzzed “You should write more.” And so I did. Something quirky and adjacent-string chromatic-y announced itself one day on my fretboard and I ran with it. I called it “Dave’s Glad Rag” (in homage to his “Sad Pig Dance”) and played it for Friday’s Open Mic.
Dave was tickled, I got my hug, and all was right in the world. (Thank you Chuck Thompson for capturing this!)
To everyone’s delight, Dave brought along a brand new harp guitar! Similar to his previous, but a charming parlor size, with a longer harp frame for its seven subs. It was another jewel and sounded wonderful.
Dave sharing his instrument with us in his hotel room.
At the end of the Gathering, singer/harp-guitarist Nancy Conescu purchased Dave’s instrument (for which I have continued to kick myself!). Frank remembers her saying that she and Mike (Doolin, her husband) wanted to collect instruments by builders they admired and she really liked Dave’s given its size and range for accompanying her voice. Sadly, this was to be the very last instrument built by Dave.
I would spend the next several years leading up 2018 arranging, writing and recording tunes for my epic Norwegian Wood CD using my collection of early-1900s Knutsen harp-instruments. I got “Dave’s Glad Rag” down (on a modern Dyer harp guitar copy, actually), then decided to do a new arrangement of his “Sad Pig Dance” for a giant 8-bass Knutsen harp guitar.
It happened to be his 75th birthday, so I sent him the finished master, a tad more confident than that fateful day back in 2007! His email reply, copied below, is the best gift I could have hoped for:
Hindsight. We never seem to learn just how short and precious life is. I so regret that I didn’t make the attempt to visit Dave for a week here and there in order to interview him, discuss his guitar ethos, not to mention getting his life story. But I expect it wouldn’t have proven fruitful (though the company, food and beer would have been divine!); Dave was just too self-deprecating and humble, and may not have been comfortable sharing all that. Indeed, the folklore has endured: “Vagabond” Dave was something of an enigma then and now – and will likely forever remain a hugely under-researched talent. Perhaps some of his many friends and guitar colleagues will add to his story.
And, so – from Sad Pig Dance…to Glad Dave’s Rag…
Interesting how those tunes perfectly summed this up for me and gave me this Blog title. While I’m enormously sad, I am forever glad that Dave Evans…was. And that I was able to share in his extraordinary world.
Until next time…
Images and photographs come from various Internet record sites, YouTube, Pierre Bensusan and various Gathering participants: Chuck Thompson CHGP, Hiro Takai, Frank Doucette, Mike Doolin, Linda Schaffner, & Linda Morgan.
Thanks to Frank and Ben for memories and research.
Appendix: Quotes on Dave’s Music
Ian A. Anderson, 1971:
- “Dave is one of that rare breed of people who have a natural ability to produce superb results at whatever they turn their hands to…”
Ian Anderson, 2001:
- “The press…fell on The Words In Between with considerable joy…”
- “…he’d produced an instant classic.”
- “…it still sounds fresh and original, a true lost gem of British ‘contemporary folk…”
- “Head and shoulders above many other now-cult artefacts from the time…”
Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop:
- “…his sound is utterly unique, as is his feeling for harmony.”
- “…others remind the listener of the impressionistic composers, particularly the maverick, Eric Satie.”
- “…Dave never sounds like he’s forcing stylistic marriages. Like any true artist, he has digested his influences and come out singing his own song.”
Steve Gunn, 2018:
- “Every aspect of his sound was of his own design.”
- “Evans has rightfully earned cult status amongst anyone with an ear for the fingerpicking style of guitar.”
- “Lou Reed (in the audience at the session where Dave’s “Stagefright” footage was shot) was said to have been completely mesmerized by Evans’ phenomenal – yet seemingly effortless – touch.”
- “…the rarity of his talent lies in his gift for melody, which is relayed both instrumentally, and via his sweet Welsh lilt.”
- “The Words in Between feels clear and effortless. Dave’s consoling voice comes through in his words, and his exquisite guitar playing guides us along on this lovely journey.”
Tom Cole, October 2, 2018:
- “It’s not just his seemingly effortless playing. There’s a gift for melody and an astounding delicate beauty that goes beyond his fleet fingerwork.”
- “He’s also an accomplished lyricist and a good singer…”
- “What sets Evans apart…is his buoyant touch and his relaxed, unforced, conversational approach to words and music. His best lyrics tell poignant stories about characters he knew…that Evans captures through vivid scenes, people and emotions with an easy poetry.”
All About Jazz:
- “Dave Evans, however, was one who coupled his love for open tunings with his knack for writing good songs and came up with a terrific album…”
- “(Sad Pig Dance) is quite an album to rest his legacy upon, a near perfect recording full of strong melodies and nimble playing.”
- “Evans’ pieces are frequently lyrical and whimsical…”
- “Sad Pig Dance is a marvel of an album, the kind that is so good it transcends its genre and just becomes good music.”
Stefano Bertoncello (Twogoodears blog), 2009:
- “…he wrote, arranged and played among the most pleasant, beautiful, challenging, poetic – to play and to listen to – guitar tunes, ever.”
- “…at every guitar gathering or Open Mic wherever you play one of these… well, folks… people get trapped in awe… it’s a mix of old melodies, weird, unseen technique and tunings and a touch of mystery…”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. – G