Harp guitar, hoops and hops at the brewery

Stephen Bennett

Photo by John Coston

Harp guitar, hoops and hops at the brewery

‘I hope you like guitars,” was Stephen Bennett’s opening line on Saturday, March 30 as he launched a two-hour solo performance flanked by guitars on all sides.

Bennett’s self-effacing humor peppered his brilliant finger-picking at the Great Falls Brewery in North Canaan as he played many familiar pieces ranging from “Oh Shenandoah” to the Cowardly Lion’s tune from the Wizard of Oz, “If I Only Had the Nerve.”

Bennett, who lives in West Cornwall with his wife Nancy, is a guitar virtuoso and composer who has played across the world and currently is treating the Northwest Corner to free performances. He is scheduled to appear on Saturday, April 6 at the Twelve Moons Coffeehouse in Falls Village at 8 p.m.

His 1909 harp guitar has been handed down from his great grandfather, who played the instrument on radio in Portland, Oregon, in the 1930s. The harp neck has no frets and provides bass notes to accompany the standard six-string neck.

Playing “The House of the Rising Sun,” a ballad of unknown authorship, the harp guitar was a good match for Bennett’s slower pace as he dropped his voice to a moody, gravely expression that rapt the audience’s attention.

Saturday night at Great Falls Brewery was not only a finger-picking extravaganza, it was a riveting basketball-dribbling March Madness night. In a Sweet 16 win over Duke, UConn women advanced to the Elite Eight.

Bennett’s continuous playing of a standard six-string, to a 1930 National Steel guitar, and his 1909 harp guitar along with a baritone guitar captivated those who came to hear him, but eyes couldn’t avoid an occasional glance at the game on the big-screen TV.

Bennett has been playing most of his life, and it the late 1980s he traveled to Oregon to join his mother and reconnect with long lost Oregon relatives. A visit to his uncle’s basement turned up the harp guitar, and everyone agreed it should be his.

“This is yours,” his uncle said after Bennett gave it a tune on the living room couch and began doodling. The rest is history, as they say. Bennett went on to compose for the instrument and later founded the annual Harp Guitar Gathering.

One song he wrote —“November” — for the harp guitar was playing on the sound system in a New York City restaurant in 2009, prompting Nancy, who was dining there, to ask the waiter what was playing. Later, she realized she knew the composer — it was the same Stephen Bennett she had once kissed at summer camp in Bristol, Connecticut, in 1969, and as they say the rest is history.

At the brewery, Bennett’s play list was improvisational at times, and always impressive and strong enough to elicit foot tapping and even table slapping at times. During longer pieces he seemed to fuse with the instrument. His finger-picking was fancy, rapid, crisp, explosive at times, trance-like at others and always seeming to make the guitar itself give its all.

His closing song was a dreamy Irish folk song — “The Star of County Down” — played on the harp guitar and is a ballad about “the prettiest girl in the county.”

It was a night for double applause: Bennett’s virtuosity and the Huskies advance.

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