Acoustic Alchemy: Redefining the Rules
“ Being in the right place at the right time and accidentally unbeknownst to us, we had the right music. ”
Greg Carmichael never really wanted to be a solo performer. “Didn’t think I had the personality or desire to do it. I was more interested in playing in a band. It was more fun to be part of a team,” said Carmichael before a recent St. Louis concert. This desire to be part of a much larger picture would become the building blocks for the success of Acoustic Alchemy.
Carmichael began playing classical guitar in his teens. Around the age of 16, Carmichael decided to seriously study music. Against the advice of his teachers, he dropped three of his subjects and dedicated the majority of his efforts to learning the guitar. However, the styles of guitar available for study were quite limited at the time. “In order to continue in school, I had to study classical,” said Carmichael. With the support of his family, Carmichael would go on to study for four years at the prestigious London College of Music. “[My] parents were very much on my side.”
Following his desire to perform in a band setting, Carmichael gave some thought on how to amplify the classical guitar. He would be one of the first artists to attach pickups to an acoustic guitar. Carmichael and band began playing in the London bars. This was where he would meet Acoustic Alchemy founder, Nick Webb. Webb was in the audience at one of the gigs and arranged to meet Carmichael. Carmichael reflected that he was most impressed with Webb’s “strong character, very strong personality and solid ideas.” They began writing songs together and performed at local restaurants and bars.
“[The] difference between people who are successful and those who play in wine bars is a fine line. Sometimes things happen,” said Carmichael. He admits that there are a lot of talented musicians who never make it past the local circuit. Sometimes sheer circumstance can forever change destiny. The rise to fame for Acoustic Alchemy was as simple as answering a help wanted ad. Carmichael shared a synopsis of this historical newspaper print: “In-flight entertainment required for Virgin Airlines. Fire eaters and jugglers need not apply.”
In an effort to corner the growing international flight market, Virgin Airlines wanted to do something different that would set them apart from the pack. They decided that Acoustic Alchemy would stroll up and down the airplane aisle on intercontinental trips from England to the United States. In return for their work, the flight back home would be free. Webb and Carmichael decided to visit the States for a while and brought a demo tape with them. However, they needed a place to stay and headed to Nashville. There, they would visit home of bassist Dave Pomeroy.
Pomeroy heard the demo and said, “I think you’ve got something here. This sort of music is just picking up in the States and it’s called New Age music,” as told by Carmichael. Pomeroy was a session musician with connections. He put the guys in contact with Tony Brown. Tony Brown was experimenting with a new MCA Master Series set of recordings. The mid-'80s was a time of change for Nashville. Local record execs were looking to shed the “country” image and develop new ideas. Brown wanted to make six records in the Master Series set and had already signed up five acts. Unfortunately, when he heard the demo, he didn’t commit right away. Six long weeks later, Acoustic Alchemy received the invitation to record.
Much to the amazement of everyone, a hungry American audience would overwhelming receive this first album. The mere 30,000 vinyl records cut wouldn’t be enough to meet the demand. “Being in the right place at the right time and accidentally unbeknownst to us, we had the right music,” said Carmichael. Acoustic Alchemy would become pioneers of the smooth jazz genre.
Carmichael takes the success with ease. He prides himself in being able to keep life in a delicate balance while having it all. “I wanted to be a musician, but I wanted a family. I’m very lucky. I have a house, I have a fantastic wife, three great kids and I’m a musician,” said Carmichael. Shyly grinning, Carmichael would glance at his watch before saying, “My twenty-second wedding anniversary is tomorrow.” His secret for marital success is simple, “I just respect my wife, I suppose . . . and try to behave in a way I’d want her to behave if the roles were reversed. We have to trust each other. If it weren’t for her, it would be difficult to have all those things.”
It was at this point in that Carmichael shifted things back to the band and introduced this reviewer to the other part of the duo, Miles Gilderdale. Gilderdale plays the steel acoustic to Carmichael’s nylon strings. Together, they form the cohesive sound that is currently Acoustic Alchemy. Gilderdale was able to briefly share the story on how he came to join the band.
Gilderdale had never heard of Acoustic Alchemy before being invited to audition in 1996. As an electric guitarist, he was reluctant to try out for a smoothly oriented band, but agreed to sit in for four songs. “I was sorta prepared to dismiss [it] . . . realized by the second and third tune that his was pretty good stuff,” said Gilderdale. The band had recently decided to experiment by removing the keyboards and replacing them with a layer of electric guitar. Gilderdale landed the job and began touring. His first official recording would be the Positive Thinking CD.
Recording this album was a lasting experience for everyone, as Webb was very ill. While undergoing chemotherapy treatments, the band chose to live with him in order to write and record the songs for Positive Thinking. On February 5, 1998, Nick Webb died before the final sessions of the album. In his honor, the band finalized this work and continued to tour.
After the death of Webb, John Parsons stepped in and covered Webb’s acoustic part during touring. However, Parsons had his own full-time gig in Spain and left in 1999 to pursue that career. This left another opening in the band. “I wasn’t an acoustic player at all. But, by this point I was a member of the family,” said Gilderdale. Rather than look outside for another musician, he decided to “lock” himself away and learn to play the acoustic guitar with steel strings. Much to the delight of fans everywhere, Gilderdale and Carmichael would mold the new image of Acoustic Alchemy.
It was an amazing experience to watch the two of them together on stage in St. Louis on September 10, 2003. The connection they share is beyond words. Where Gilderdale has a more edgy style with a pick and steel strings, Carmichael has a soft touch with fingers and nylon. Where one stops, the other follows by pure intuition. There doesn’t appear to be any competition for space. Melodies and harmony flow effortlessly.
Gilderdale appears to be the most outgoing of the duo while onstage. In an offbeat standup routine, Gilderdale gave vivid descriptions of each band member. He introduced Carmichael by saying, “This guy here needs no introduction. This here is Mr. Acoustic Alchemy himself” and wittingly made reference to the original band gig as being before motorized transport. Carmichael would simply introduce Gilderdale by asking that everyone give his “friend” a hand.
The crowd at the local theater, The Pageant, enjoyed tunes from their new CD, Radio Contact. The eager audience was treated to an extended rendition of “No Messin.” An unplugged version of this song was played earlier in the day on local radio station, WSSM. It was interesting to hear the contrasts between this solely acoustic version and the electrified number that was featured in the evening. The acoustic version seemed to have a more organic feel. The nighttime version was exuberantly unbridled. Bassist Frank Felix commented, “We love that tune . . . can’t you tell?”
Gilderdale took the lead on “Milo,” which was written for his son. As a side note, jazz guitarist Chuck Loeb helped produce “Milo,” “No Messin,” “Shelter Island Drive,” and “Urban Cowboy” for the album. Gilderdale spoke about how touring the country on a bus helped influence the song writing for Radio Contact. It was after they “went to a placed called Texas” that “Urban Cowboy” was written. Flavors of places visited have often been a topic of previous Acoustic Alchemy songs.
Colors and textures appear to be a key ingredient to the fourteen-year success of this group. Rather than let themselves stagnate, they ebb and flow with change. Where the previous CD, AArt was filled with horn textures, Radio Contact concentrates more heavily on the acoustic feel to the group. However, this is not necessarily a complete return to the original Acoustic Alchemy sound. The song writing is fresh and the arrangements have a purely modern vibe. Perhaps Radio Contact will be seen a well-organized effort to extend the existing boundaries of the smooth jazz market. When asked about the future of smooth jazz, Carmichael stated, “I don’t think it will ever go away. It will evolve.” Redefining the rules is what Acoustic Alchemy does best.