The Arts

Renowned guitarist Mike Dawes dazzles at The Suffolk

The “best acoustic guitarist in the world” two years in a row, according to Total Guitar Magazine and MusicRadar, descended upon Riverhead for a solo spectacle.

Mike Dawes, a renowned acoustic guitarist who hails from England, played The Suffolk last Sunday. The performance was a celebratory milestone for him along his journey from music student, to music teacher, to world-class live act performer with two studio albums under his belt.

“I’m thrilled to say the United States, particularly the East Coast, has been very kind to me over the years,” Mr. Dawes, 33, who resides in Bristol, said in an interview hours before his performance. “And I’m thrilled to be ending my first-ever headlining tour of the East Coast in Riverhead.”

Mr. Dawes began courting his audience in 2008, and struck gold in 2012 with his one-man, one-guitar cover of Gotye’s hit “Somebody That I Used to Know,” which garnered much attention, including a version released in 2012 that has garnered nearly 5 million views on YouTube. The attention is undoubtedly due to Dawes’ unique methods. For all of his covers, the guitarist breaks down the vocal melody, harmonies and percussive elements of the original song and recomposes them for a single acoustic guitar. To pull this off, he uses the entire body of the guitar, or “a wooden box with strings,” as he called it. For instance, he plays a bass line with his right thumb while slapping his palm against the wooden hollow body to imitate a kick-drum, then — without missing a beat — moves to the neck, where he will hit various strings with any of his 10 fingers to play versions of the vocal lines and accompanying instruments.

The intricacies of Mr. Dawes’ complex technique are also evident in his original songs. On “The Impossible,” his first original composition, his hands play independently of one another in different time signatures to create a dizzying swirl of sound. 

He said he composed the polyrhythmic piece to express the confusion he felt as an unemployed university graduate in search of a future. The showstopper ended with a standing ovation Sunday evening, followed by an encore performance of “All Along the Watchtower.”

As a composer and a performer, Mr. Dawes said he strives to see and hear explicit emotional reactions from his audience, whether it’s laughter or cheers during tracks like “William Shatner’s Pants” or “Boogie Shred,” or complete silence and undivided attention during “Encomium (Reverie),” the opening track of his second album, “Era” (which he said was inspired by “Dirge,” a somber tune by Michael Hedges, one of his greatest inspirations). Mr. Dawes wrote “Encomium” at a time when many of his older relatives began dying.

“The songs … are written with real intent in mind, some kind of emotional trauma — I know that’s a bit of a cliche — or happiness, some heightened emotional state,” he said. “When I play them live, they connect with the audience on a greater level. When someone is in a room in a real live concert, that’s when you know if a tune is working or not.”

“Another reason I play it on this tour is it inspired a duet I did with a Turkish guitar player and a friend of mine — Cenk Erdoğan,” he added. “I’ve been dedicating it to him and his new record because his country right now is going through an awful time with this earthquake.”

Much of Mr. Dawes’ Riverhead set was built around high-energy covers, from Van Halen’s “Jump,” to Prince’s “Purple Rain,” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” (“a traditional folk song from Seattle” as he put it, which elicited a chuckle from the crowd.) 

In fact, his stage presence, with his joke-cracking and the occasional high-kick or leap over a chair, is perhaps more in line with that of a rock guitar hero than what one might expect of a solo acoustic guitarist.

“If you’re not having fun, why are you doing it?” Mr. Dawes asked. “[Tour opener] Gareth Pearson and I were talking about this the other day on the road — the era of guitar shows of a guy sitting on a chair and staring at his feet, playing his songs and leaving? We feel like that’s over. I’ve never been interested in doing that.”

Growing up in rural Hampshire, England, Mr. Dawes grew fond of the electric guitar. His family moved around the area often, so he made lots of new friends, but none that shared his dedication to music. That led him to embrace solo acoustic guitar and his style of self-accompanied playing.

While his eccentric acoustic style worked well in local pubs, it did not fare as well at England’s Bath Spa University, where he studied music.

“I was a bit of a black sheep,” Mr. Dawes said. “My teachers were often asking me to work with a singer, saying ‘Why would anyone want to listen to instrumental guitar?’ But I was very stubborn.”

One professor, however, Joe Bennett, understood Mr. Dawes’ passion. Now a professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Mr. Bennett is a Mike Dawes fan.

“He came out to the show last night,” Mr. Dawes said of Mr. Bennett. “Every time I’m in town he comes out.”

With a successful tour in the bag, Mr. Dawes will soon head back across the pond for tour dates in the United Kingdom and other European countries. While he is not on stage, he will be wrapping up work for his upcoming third studio album, which will boast a fresh slate of originals and some covers that have yet to be mastered for a full-length release.

“My next solo album is nearly finished,” he said. “After this tour I’ll be in the studio recording the final song for it, and then I’ll be mixing it in Nashville. It will be out either in the summer or the fall.”