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Tim Sparks - watch out Doc Watson!

Tim SparksI had the good fortune to catch Tim Sparks last night at a short (hour and a half) concert following a guitar workshop, in Lexington, MA. Although I have been a fan of Sparks since his work in the 1970s with a jazz group called Rio Nido, I had never seen him live. I was in for a treat.

Consider that the music I love best next to klezmer is the blues. Consider that one of Sparks' early memories is of Doc and Merle Watson jamming in a parking lot at a bluegrass confab decades ago. Like my wife, he is a native North Carolinian. So, if I then tell you that the set ranged from Elizabeth Cotten's "Victory Rag" through Flory Jagoda, John Zorn (albeit, a rather melodic John Zorn), and ended with Roy Orbison, you won't be surprised if I say that I was in heaven. If you have heard any of his Tzadik recordings, several reviewed on the KlezmerShack, you know the breadth and incredible qualities of his Jewish repertoire.

We were in a small guitar shop—maybe 30 or 50 people crowded in around the corner where he performed, unamplified. We all had great seats to watch the fingers fly. Like Doc Watson and Elizabeth Cotten, Sparks has a warm, friendly guitar style that is belied by the speed with which he picks at notes, leaving the listener breathless and in awe. And then he does it some more. The patter between the songs was also lovely. At one point, following a blues by Eubie Blake he talked about Naftule Brandwein and mentioned that in 1917 you could have listened to Blake up in Harlem and then taken the subway down to the Lower East Side and caught Brandwein. Quite a neat thought. He introduced one song by talking of the Hasidic (I have always thought primarily a Lubavitch-specific tale, although a primal way that many of us now think of Judaism and of life) story about the breaking of the original light (אור) into (אֹר), and the tikun olam we do to bring those original sparks of light together. It was rather neat listening to someone non-Jewish use a Jewish creation myth to describe how the pieces of a song that he was about to play came together. On the other hand, the respect reflected in this story carried over to all of Sparks' stories about the musicians, and the music that he was playing, and was reflected by the warmth of his playing.

This was a very special concert. I'm sorry it took me 30 years to hear Tim Sparks a first time. It would be most upsetting to have to wait that long to catch him again. If you are in NYC, he's playing there tonight. He'll be in Philadelphia with Jon Madof on Saturday night.

You can also get a book of Sparks' Jewish music transcriptions and tablature, Neshamah. He also has individual pieces of music for sale on the same site.