Two with Everything: Bill and Ben

by Mark Greenberg
February 2005

William Coulter and Ben Verdery, guitars
November 12, 2004
American Youth Hostel

That the guitar can turn inwardly on itself and sing old Sephardic songs like an angel, we have seen. And it is also clear that the guitar can, in its own quiet way, be the life of the party, and make music that the tall and tan and young and lovely can dance to. But can the guitar suggest other states of being? That is to say, can it (in its own quiet way) be in conflict with itself? That is to say, can a player like Ben Verdery — a player at once contemplative and yet at the same time almost over-the-top — really exist?

Yes, my friends. Ben Verdery can exist, and does exist, and did exist for a splendid NYCCGS performance on Nov. 12th at the Youth Hostel. Some of us may associate Verdery with the rigeur of Bach or French music (as witness the fine CD Reverie). Others may think of Verdery in terms of takes on Hendrix and The Artist Formerly Known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Yet there is room enough in Ben’s warm and expansive heart for Tibetan Buddhists as well. And this goes to the very heart of the matter, if not to the very heart of the Universe.

For this performance was a benefit in aid of the Tibetan Monastery of New York, and a genuine Tibetan Buddhist monk (sans saffron robes, I am sorry to report, but he said that was okay) introduced Mr. Verdery (talk about good vibes!) and Bill Coulter, who performed pieces from their new CD, Song for the Ancestors.

And herein comes the dichotomy: For it is Ben Verdery’s special gift to be able to create his own aural universe, even as the audience sits and watches. It is a universe on the edge of explosion and implosion at the same time; both wildly in control and seemingly (but somehow never quite) out of control. Witness what Verdery means by technical studies: rock-and-roll riffs and rhythms way past the 12th fret. And he gives these things to high school kids to learn! You’re a mean man, Ben, and a tough teacher too. Yet Verdery is a great teacher also, because kids actually can play his stuff. And so stretches the limits of what we mean by “classical guitar.”

Together, Verdery and Bill Coulter provide Vulcan mind-meld duo playing that results in fantastic Irish jigs, occasionally based on old traditional melodies by Clapton. Verdery also does tape looping while-U-wait, laying down a track and then adding another on each pass of the loop. It’s a dangerous game where any error can add up incrementally, yet I’ve seen him do this twice, and he nailed it both times … a fantastic piece of musicianship.

But best of all is watching Ben Very solo on his Smallman, head thrown back, eyes blissfully shut, non-staring at the ceiling, never ever looking at his hands. Yeah, that’s the way my teacher, Stanley Dorn (hi, Stanley, hi!) says we all should play. Eyes on the music. Or in Ben’s case, eyes wide shut, but third eye way open and reading the music of the spheres!