Bob McCarthy, right, plays with blues harpist James Mongomery at the Flying Monkey. McCarthy, who has played with Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young, John Mayall and more, will perform at the Taste of the Lakes Region this Sunday. (Courtesy photo)
Altrusa International event to feature local musician and food Sunday
By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — "Music doesn't define who I am," remarked Bob McCarthy, whose skill with guitar and mandolin has earned him respect, friends and a living for more than half a century, "but it has given me something to do."
Sipping coffee at his home overlooking Lake Winnisquam, McCarthy, when asked what sort of music he plays, answers "How much do you have?" He said his father, an academic who played violin, once told him "There are no bad gigs." In a recent interview with Blues Magazine he described himself as "a working musician with emphasis on work."
McCarthy played his first "big gig" at 16, performing with the Back Alley Boys at the New World's Fair in 1964 then began plying the coffee houses and college stages around Boston and Cambridge. "Boston was San Francisco east," he recalled. His talent took him to New York, where his solo performance at Gerde's Folk City, the legendary Greenvwich Village venue, prompted Variety to note that "His work on six-string acoustic guitar stands out" and he "seems unhampered by delivering solo stylings usually associated with combos."
McCarthy began picking folk songs and country blues, which have remained the staples of a repertoire that stretches to jazz, ragtime, bluegrass, jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel, laced with strains of Ireland and Brazil. "You have be versatile to make a living at this," he said. "I've had to do everything."
The breadth of McCarthy's repertoire reflects his aesthetic approach to his music, which he described as "conceptualist." Himself a painter, he suggested that like painters, musicians have a concept or sense of the changes overtaking the culture at particular times and present themselves in harmony with it.
"Remember the boy bands wearing matching suits? You don't see them anymore," he said. "That's why Bob Dylan's voice changes," he laughed, or "why Lou Reed's sound echoed what was going on with Andy Warhol."
McCarthy's virtuosity has placed him on the stage and in the studio of any number of more familiar names, including the Jefferson Airplane, Bonnie Raitt, the Everly Brothers, Pentangle, Neil Young, Taj Mahal, John Prine, the Youngbloods, Larry Coryell, Livingston Taylor, Nanci Griffith and Leo Kottke. With John Compton and Andy Pratt of Appaloosa, he shared a stage in Washington with Charlie Mingus, Jonathan Edwards and Linda Ronstadt, and recently played alongside bluesman John Mayall
When Tommy Makem found himself short a guitar player, McCarthy pinch hit. He said that he was not altogether familiar with the set list.
"I figured I could watch Tommy's hands" he said, "but discovered he was playing banjo."
No matter. McCarthy spent the next 12 years touring with Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. He remembered he and Makem were a good match because "we were both Catholic and Tommy didn't drink and I'm not a drinker either."
McCarthy has also enjoyed a longstanding friendship with James Montgomery, there master of the blues harp, with whom he formed a jug band in 1967. Montogomery is featured on McCarthy's album "Satisfied Mind," which he described as a collection of blues he began with.
McCarthy admitted to being something of a introvert, who would rather practice his art than promote himself. Critics have referred to him as "a sadly lesser known" picker, singer and songwriter and "one of New England's closest kept mandolin/guitar secrets."
McCarthy himself noted that his work serves as "bumper music," the riffs played between stories, on National Public Radio. "I've made it," he crowed. "Bumper music. Nobody knows who you are."
But, McCarthy has not escaped the praise and respect of peers.
"If there were any justice in the world," said Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna and a bluesman in his own right, "you'd be a well-known big dawg!"
McCarthy, together with Tom Logan, with whom he has played since they were teens, will perform at the 27th Annual Taste of the Lakes Region, presented by Altrusa International of Laconia, on Sunday, March 26, between 4 and 6 p.m. at Church Landing in Meredith. Admission is limited those 21 and over and tickets are $30 per person. McCarthy said he will offer a mix of classic and original material, leavened with instrumentals.
Bob McCarthy at the Flying Monkey. (Courtesy photo)