Tony Furtado Trio to play Livermore's Bankhead
By Lou Fancher
Hearing a shower of notes played by musician Tony Furtado on his banjo, it's easy to assume the spark plug of his professional career is buried in the Deep South. Or, sliding cross-genre to appreciate the melodic, voice-like phrasing that resonates from his 1944 Martin 00-17 acoustic guitar, a wild guess at his songwriting origins could land in opera, folk singing or rock 'n roll.
Instead, the Pleasanton native's 28 years in the business and 16 albums spin out from a long-ago school project made out of simple household goods -- a tin pie plate and strings -- and a 1969 song by the Eagles, "Seven Bridges Road."
Furtado returns to home turf for an appearance Saturday at Livermore's Bothwell Arts Center. Joined by fiddler Luke Price and bass player Sam Howard, the Tony Furtado Trio performance is a benefit for the Livermore Rotary Club Music Scholarship Fund. The proceeds will provide assistance to qualified and disadvantaged Livermore music students.
"My parents got me a banjo in 1979 because I'd made an instrument for a cool junior high school project," Furtado recalls. "I had found out banjos come from Africa and was fascinated by the history."
Improbably, his fascination arose out of a musical desert: his mother had a small record collection and his father an even smaller one. "My dad had one record: Tony Orlando and Dawn II," says Furtado, who was born in Oakland in 1967 and moved to Pleasanton one year later. During his boyhood, he occasionally listened to early FM radio. Exposed to everything from Glen Campbell to The Who but attracted to harmony and rock bands that included banjo, the first album he ever bought was "Eagles Live." Had he grown up in the American South and not lived in the Bay Area, departing at age 23 and eventually winding up in Portland, Oregon, where he now lives with his wife and young son, Furtado suggests he might have become a strictly bluegrass musician. "In the Bay Area though, I met all kinds of people. I couldn't do just one thing; there are so many viewpoints represented."
Furtado calls his approach to music "frontiering." He's grateful to Pleasanton resident Dave Eshelman, director emeritus of jazz studies at California State University, East Bay, for allowing him entry into a classroom. "He let me come into his jazz improv class with my banjo, even though it's not a standard jazz instrument."
After that experience a switch turned on, and Furtado developed into a masterful slide-guitarist whose sound is recognizable for his unorthodox transference of skills. "From fingerpicking banjo, my thumb is a little free-form, not the tight, repeating pattern used on the guitar. But I took that structured thumb over to the banjo." Inversely, Furtado learned to slow the typically cascading notes of the banjo (his is Czech Republic-made Prucha model) to rest on a melody and imitate a human voice, as he does when playing guitar. "I became comfortable hanging out with less notes on a banjo," he says.
At the Bothwell, Furtado will be joined by Price, who he says "can match me head-for-head on fiddle or electric guitar" and "helps create vibe." The deep, woody tones resonating from Howard's bass, especially when he uses his bow, Furtado says "add muscle" to the trio.
Stacking the deck fully, Furtado's recent foray portends an auspicious occasion. Launching his own record label, YousayFurtado Records, "The Bell" is his first album released under his company's management. "Especially the last five albums I recorded, I felt like I was under a microscope. There was a judgmental view that said I had to do things a certain way. Previously, it was someone else's view of what I should be. This is what I want to say."
The freedom to decide that a song should have more banjo or to sit with a track longer before deciding it's finished is a blessing he values highly. "I didn't have to hurry or sell it to the guy who's paying the bills," he says.
Rotarian Mark Stroker brought Furtado's music to the attention of fellow club member Michael Ferrucci, who started the fund that has awarded more than $50,000 in scholarships since it's inception 15 years ago. Ferrucci for 25 years owned and operated the downtown Livermore guitar shop, Fine Fretted Friends.
"Mark loves roots music," says Ferrucci, "to me, it's just plain music from the heart."
Ferrucci suggests Furtado's easy-to-listen-to music is a great way to celebrate homegrown talent and raise funds for students. An interview, work samples, letter of intent and extensive questionnaire are required to earn the scholarships that range from $200 to $1,000 and are used to fund music camps, lessons, instrument purchases or repair and similar needs. Ferrucci says past recipients have gone on to become educators in Tri-Valley schools, members of professional Bay Area orchestras, or to form popular local bands like Crawdad Republic.
"The funds went toward their trailer and they now enjoy a worldwide audience and recently played at the open-air Bankhead show last week," he says.
Tickets for the benefit are $20. Ferrucci is hoping for a sellout. Furtado is merely looking for the immediacy of a live performance. "I love coming back to play in the area. Folks I knew growing up come -- and besides, my mom still lives in Livermore, and she'll be there too. It's special."