Best Bets: Grammy-nominated lutenist McFarlane headed to Dover

Ronn McFarlane will perform his original and other compositions on the lute Feb. 14 at the Old State House in Dover. (Submitted photo)

Hearing a really bad cover version of The Surfaris’ “Wipeout” in eighth grade got Ronn McFarlane interested in music.

Hearing the beautiful strains of Renaissance and Baroque music played on the lute while in college kept him there.

Mr. McFarlane, one of the world’s most acclaimed lutenists, will perform Feb. 14 during the Delaware Friends of Folk’s free Old State House concert in Dover.

The Grammy-nominated musician aims to bring the lute — the most popular instrument of the Renaissance — into today’s musical mainstream, making it accessible to a wider audience.

Since taking up the instrument in 1978, Mr. McFarlane, 66, has made his mark in music as the founder of Ayreheart, a founding member of the Baltimore Consort, touring 49 of the 50 United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Netherlands, Germany and Austria, and as a guest artist with Apollo’s Fire, The Bach Sinfonia, The Catacoustic Consort, The Folger Consort, Houston Grand Opera, The Oregon Symphony, The Portland Baroque Orchestra, and The Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra.

He has over 40 recordings, composing new music for the lute. His original compositions are the focus of his solo CD, “Indigo Road,” which received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Classical Crossover Album of 2009.

But it all came back to that day in eighth grade.

“It was during a field day and classmates were playing sports outside, and inside the cafeteria on this makeshift stage were some kids playing ‘Wipeout’,” Mr. McFarlane recalled this week from his childhood home in Ellicott City, Maryland.

“It was probably just the most horrible thing but to my 13-year-old ears, it was the greatest thing. It was like seeing The Beatles. These were people I knew in my class. I figured if they could do it, I could do it too.”

So he went to Montgomery Ward, bought a cheap guitar and learned how to play it.

“I don’t have times in my life where everything turns on a dime. Things always happen gradually for me. But this one instant became my whole life. I couldn’t wait to get home and play. It was the most fun thing I could do. And it still is.”

He went on to play in rock and blues bands while in high school and later got interested in classical guitar to improve his rock playing. But the classical guitar became more interesting to him. He studied classical guitar at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia and then at Peabody Conservatory on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

It was while studying classical guitar that he was exposed to pieces that were originally played on the lute but had been reworked for the guitar. He began to wonder what these pieces would sound like on the instrument for which they were originally composed.

“I fell in love with the music,” he said.

“I think I started to play both for six months and realized that I would never get as far on either one if I continued to play both so I chose the lute.”

He said he was intrigued by the connection the Renaissance music had with the folk and rock music he had played as a teenager.

“The popular music of the 1600s had a lot of the same characteristics as the classic rock rhythms. There was still that chance for improvisation. It had all of the things I love about classical and folk and popular music all in the same repertoire. It was a perfect fit and completed myself as a musician,” he said.

Although he is known now as an acclaimed lutenist, it didn’t start out that way. He remembers the first time he had a lute in his hands.

“I had read all about playing lute music on the guitar so I thought I knew how to do it. I went to DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. to a shop that is no longer there – David Perry’s Guitar and Lute Shop,” he said.

“I saw a lute on the wall and a person took it down for me and I couldn’t believe how weird it felt. I was used to the guitar being flat in the back and this stuck way out in the back. The neck felt all wrong. I looked so stupid.

“The guy behind the counter said ‘Do you know what you are doing?” Nevertheless, I didn’t give up. I got one soon after that and became more and more at home with it until it eventually felt like an extension of my body.”

Adapting a guitar technique that he no longer uses that employed his fingernails to pluck the strings, Mr. McFarlane became proficient enough to perform on stage in about a year.

“That was probably too soon but the repertoire was not the most virtuosic. It was pretty straightforward,” he said.

He said audiences who have never heard the lute played are often amazed at how much variety in tone the instrument provides.

“There is a whole range of colors of sound if you know how to draw it out,” he said.

“It can sound like a harp, guitar, mandolin or banjo. There is a banjo piece called ‘Pine Tops’ where the lute sounds like a banjo all by playing almost all of it on the first string and giving it a very trebley sound. It has this very rapid-fire texture that is sort of reminiscent of a bluegrass banjo.”

Mr. McFarlane said that not only will he play his original and other compositions in Dover but he’ll also talk about the instrument and its history along with its peculiar nature.

“I try not to nerd out on the instrument but the general public doesn’t know a whole lot about the lute. I’ll probably talk about the controversy that erupted back in the day on how to play it and the different ideas that came about of how to make such beautiful sounds. Not everyone agreed,” he said.

This is the sixth season in the series, which is produced in cooperation with the First State Heritage Park and is supported by a grant from the Kent County Fund for the Arts. The free one-hour performance will begin at 7:30 pm. Seating is limited.

Cheap Trick Saturday

Tickets are still available for Cheap Trick, performing Saturday at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino’s Rollins Center on Saturday Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased by visiting doverdowns.com.

Cheap Trick performs Saturday at Dover Downs.

Prices range from $55 to $100.

With over 5,000 performances spanning four decades and 20 million records sold worldwide, Cheap Trick was formed in 1974 and while it has evolved throughout the years, Cheap Trick has continued to reach mainstream and critical success.

Hits such as “I Want You To Want Me,” “Dream Police,” and “Surrender” have cemented the group as one of America’s top rock ‘n’ roll bands.

First Friday activities set

A little romance and a taste of Valentine’s Day promise will fill the air in downtown Dover Friday night as retail stores and restaurants will all be lit up and open for business on February’s First Friday, with musicians and snacks in select stores from 5 until 7 p.m.

House of Coffi will feature live jazz by Dover local Wesley Melvin playing on tenor sax and the Delaware Store and Parke Green Galleries are following suit with saxophonist Grady O’Connor.

“These young musicians are especially skilled with their music and are fun to watch, too. The public is invited to vote for their favorite merchant window décor online at Tinyurl.com/DoverWindows,” said Diane Laird, executive director of the Downtown Dover Partnership.

My Roots will host Wesley College’s Ryan Schumacher on acoustic guitar and friend Samuel on keyboard, playing jazz to more popular tunes in the acoustic style. Just down Loockerman Street at Tina’s Timeless Threads, guitarist Mike Miller will play Americana-themed pieces and Dover favorite Rick Hudson will play guitar and harmonica with a focus on blues, old-time country and contemporary pieces at Simaron Steak Shop.

The Golden Fleece will host a DJ beginning at 10 p.m. Most of the shops are participating in the merchant window contests.

The “In Harmony … Concert Series” will continue from 6:30 until 8 p.m. inside Multi-Purpose Room A and Multi-Purpose Room B at the Dover Public Library with the First State Harmonizers and Voices of DelMarVa.

The Moving Experience was the winner of the December Downtown Dover Partnership merchant window decorating contest and the trophy now moves on to the current winner, House of Coffi. Todd (The Moving Experience) and Kristin Stonesifer (owner of House of Coffi) are husband and wife. The House of Coffi is one of several businesses that will be competing for best storefront at First Friday in downtown Dover Friday night. (Submitted photo)

The First State Harmonizers is a chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society and is a mixed chorus of men and women who perform four-part harmony of classic Americana favorites to include ballads, up-tunes, patriotic and show tunes.

“Both choruses are a blended mix of singers from all walks of life, with a wide range of vocal and musical backgrounds,” Ms. Laird said.

All activities are free. Parking is free on the streets and in permit lots after 5 p.m. this evening and all weekend.

The Shop Downtown Dover promotional “passport for savings” is also available. For more information on obtaining a booklet, contact Ms. Laird at Diane@DowntownDoverPartnership.com. The promotional program runs through June 30.

Now showing

New in theaters this weekend is DC Comics’ “Birds of Prey” with Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

On DVD and download starting Tuesday is Matt Damon and Christian Bale in “Ford v Ferrari.”

To share news of your entertainment group, venue or event, contact Craig Horleman at 741-8224 or chorl@newszap.com.