As local legends go, Lenny Breau is among the most mythical. From child prodigy to jazz impresario to the bottom of a swimming pool as the result of a never-solved murder. His dad was named Hal Lone Pine. He took inordinate care of his fingernails.
TAKEN TOO SOON Maine guitar legend Lenny Breau.
Unfortunately, it's likely more people have heard his name, his idiosyncrasies, and his story, than have heard his music.
As part of an effort to rectify that, a group of friends, admirers, the first man ever to record him, and a filmmaker have come together to create a day in his honor, where you can learn to play like Lenny, see Lenny play in archival footage, and hear a bunch of great guitarists do their best not to let Lenny down.
>> READ: "A long overdue biography of Maine music legend Lenny Breau" <<
They've been meeting periodically in Al Hawkes's basement in Westbrook to plan the whole thing, not more than 50 feet away from where Hawkes recorded Lenny for his Event Records all those years ago (the most famous recording, Boy Wonder, was made in 1956). As I sit there listening to them figure out the particulars of promotional posters and scheduling, Hawkes gets up to put on an old outtake from recordings where Breau backed up the legendary Dick Curless. Maybe it would be a good thing to play at the event, he proposes.
All of a sudden, I'm spellbound. Curless's resonant voice is unmistakable, like a cartoon John Wayne. "Here we go, c'mon now," he urges the room to quiet.
But then there's Lenny. A clearly irrepressible kid, "Dick's having a hell of a time," he laughs. "C'mon Curly."
And Curless just laughs. But then they start playing "Nine Pound Hammer," a traditional song recorded by everyone from Big Bill Broonzy to Bill Monroe to the Beatles. Lenny's playing immaculate Atkins-style backing until everyone stops for Curless to narrate the origins of the mining song.
"Sometimes the air gets so foul back there," he intones, serious as a cave-in, "that you can't get a good deep breath."
And then the whole room cracks up. Curless growls, "no laughing goddammit."
What's up? "Well," Hawkes says with a chuckle, "Lenny actually passes gas, and then they just can't keep going because they're laughing so hard."
Nothing's ever made Breau seem so real. Well, that and the Gibson 1934-35 Model L-00 guitar that Hawkes points to, propped along a wall in the room. It's the one Breau was playing on that recording. Hawkes plans on selling it this year, part of a larger plan to sell off memorabilia that he's realized he can't exactly take with him (he's 81, and still regularly performing).
"Where's Dick now?," wonders Glen Weiser, a guitar player who's arranged a large amount of Celtic tunes for guitar, and who moved to the Portland area only recently.
"He's in hillbilly heaven," says Sean Mencher, a rockabilly guitarist who moved here from Austin some time ago. "I went to his funeral with Al and Betty Cody [Lenny's mom]. I was talking to Betty, and she remembered when Merle Travis came up there to play, and they brought Lenny out." It was part of Tex Ritter's Ozark Jubilee, apparently, "and Lenny came out at just 15 or 16 years old and played with Merle Travis, and I remember Better saying how amazing that was. And that was on the way to Dick Curless's funeral."
What's maybe more amazing is that just a few years later, Breau was teaming with Rick Danko and Levon Helm, of the Band, to record The Hallmark Sessions, a visionary and progressive piece of electric jazz. His range on the guitar was enormous.
That's why such a large group of guitar players hold him in such high regard. It's why Berklee teacher and old friend Bob Thompson was eager to donate his services to run a guitar clinic teaching some of Breau's techniques. Why Mencher and Arlo West and Jay Peterson and Hugh Bowden were happy to get on stage and play some songs in his memory. Why it's special to see brother Denny Breau, a player in his own right, be a part of the event.
And all of it to fund a documentary (see "Still Pictures," this page) that will hopefully spread Lenny's legend even farther and wider. In the meantime, he's on iTunes, folks. Go take a listen.
A Celebration of Lenny Breau and His Music | With Denny Breau + Bob Thompson + Al Hawkes + Sean Mencher + Alro West + Jay Peterson + Glenn Weiser + Bill Umbel + Hugh Bowden | at the Empire, in Portland | Sept 30