The Fifth Row: An Acoustic tour of Historic Theaters  2009

Many old theaters I have played in across the country share a remarkably common story; they have been saved from the wrecking ball by a few volunteers dedicated to preservation, and to bringing live entertainment back to their community.


As compelling a story as that is, my interest in these historic theaters was to discover what unique qualities they may offer as a recording space. I learned long ago that focusing on the sound coming off the guitar is not as important as listening to the room in which the guitar is being played. We may perform from stage, but our ears have to be in the house. The Fifth Row to be precise. Inherent in each theater is a unique sound quality, an acoustic fingerprint that, with careful microphone placement can itself be captured and preserved.

The eleven theaters included on this recording are in various degrees of revival. Some have undergone exquisite restoration, while others are waiting and searching for the financial means to pay for the expensive renovations. Their architectural styles vary as well, from 17th century European to Art Deco, from Egyptian to Swiss Chalet. Some are grand, some are humble, and all have a story to tell.

I limited my geographic scope to a five state area in the Rocky Mountain region. Here, the explosive growth of the late 19th century and early 20th century saw a crop of Opera houses spring up to cash in on citizens far removed from the cultural amenities of the Eastern states. In the “boom” half of the familiar cycle, these gems were the real gold mines. Unfortunately most of these original houses are gone, many to fire, others to neglect and economic despair.

A second surge of theater construction in the 1920’s was in direct response to the burgeoning movie craze. These palaces were often intended for multi use, able to accommodate the talkies, but also equipped with deep stages and towering flies to hoist sets for plays and musicals that traveled through town.

Another factor in my choosing the theaters of the Northern Rockies was purely logistical. I live in Montana, and location recordings require a considerable amount of equipment, which meant driving. The long distances between these theaters gave me plenty of time to think. I was crossing the same ground that vaudeville acts of 125 years ago traveled as they toured the mining town circuit. The similarities don’t go much beyond that, since I am speeding down a modern highway in my air-conditioned Grand Cherokee listening to a mix in surround sound. Yet there is a connection. My art is my work.

The process was relatively simple. After setting mics and levels in the late afternoon I ate an early dinner, drew my curtains closed in the hotel and was in bed by 7:00. Up at midnight, I began pacing myself so that by 3:00am, when the recording light went on, I would be playing my best. I am not a night person by nature, but I discovered early on in this project that, while theaters may have been designed with acoustic excellence in mind, they were built long before the rumble of heavy truck traffic and the drone of modern society penetrated their walls. If my recording was going to succeed, it would have to be while the town slept. I worked alone, theater locked, and all the lights off except for a floor lamp next to me on stage that I could guarantee was quiet. Virtually every theater manager warned me of spirits that roamed the balconies and projection rooms, but I had no such encounters. In the dead of the night I pushed myself hard, through take after take, searching for my best. If their existence were a reality they left me alone, assuming I had my hands full wrestling with my own demons, seeking perfection. The truth is I loved working in those spaces.

The Fifth Row




Confluence:  A Duet of Words and Music 2004 Classical guitarist Stuart Weber and author Alan Kesselheim, weave together a medley of readings and musical compositions inspired by wild places and experiences in nature. Together they explore a frontier of expression that forges something ground-breaking and provocative out of the marriage of their work.

“Your presentation moved the audience from laughter, to tears, to evocative recollections of their own encounters with nature.” JB Bancroft, President’s Fine Arts Series, Montana State University




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Duet Album

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Departures 1996 This continuation of Weber’s original compositions sets the guitar in the midst of unique and colorful accompaniment. Judiciously spiced with cello, percussion, electric bass, harp and string quartet, this recording encourages repeated listening and defies category.










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