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Seldom has a venue been more ironically named. The “Burning Coal Theatre” at Murphey School in downtown Raleigh provided cool music and cool surroundings for many hardy and enthusiastic fans for the finest music that the Spanish genre has to offer. That rustic old haven hosted Ed Stephenson and the Paco Band for the latest edition in the “MusiCoal at Burning Coal” series.
The players telegraphed their punches early with a pair of pieces, “Azul” by Jesse Cook and “Ino” by Stephenson and Craig Hilton, co-guitarist with Stephenson. The former piece started in the spirit of “Granada” (about which more later), and progressed on the spectrum from the tame to the feral. The latter was of a similar stripe.
Stephenson and Hilton’s “Clea” was a highly percussive work featuring the considerable skills of Sara Romweber on the drums. She came on strong also in the later “Entre dos Aguas” by the contemporary composer and band’s namesake, Paco de Lucia. Her pace-setting beat was equally likely to emerge on the drums or the cajon, a percussive wooden cube unfamiliar to many in the audience (well, at least one). Providing a solid but never obtrusive underpinning here and throughout was the playing of Ryan Johnson, a bassist powerfully lauded by Stephenson as equally competent on the guitar when needed.
In “Chilean Lady” (Stephenson and Hilton), the guitarists swapped the lead and rhythm throughout, with Hilton, identified by Stephenson as his former student, shining as brightly as his mentor. Tarrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” and Albeniz’s “Asturias” furnished the vehicles for dazzling solo artistry by Stephenson. In these pages just over a year ago, the reviewer saw fit to refer to that guitarist’s “high level of skill.” The evening’s proceedings further solidified that observation. Both guitarists showed a most agreeable minimum of distracting and unmusical left-hand noises on the strings.
A program of Spanish music could scarcely be complete without a singer in the style of Teresa Fernandez. In the aforementioned pages of this journal, the reviewer thought that her performances “evoked memories of the finest cabaret singing techniques.” That artistry was on display as she paired with Stephenson in the surpassingly beautiful and mournful “Canción del Emperador” of de Narváez, movingly declaiming its text of “great grief and grievous pain.” Her uncommon range was evident in the anonymous “Spanish Romance,” calling as it did for a lower register as challenging as the later soprano measures. She completed her offerings with the famous and obligatory “Danza No. 5” of Granados, and Agustin Lara’s “Granada,” backed by a full complement of guitar, bass and percussion.
A program highlight was “Fandango,” for two guitars and bass by the ancient Boccherini (an Italian who spent much time in Spain). The full group closed with a major workout for all, “Mediterranean Sundance / Rio Ancho,” yet another work from Paco de Lucia.
When and as you have a hankering for matters Spanish, you probably could not do better than to seek out appearances by Ed Stephenson and the Paco Band.