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Acoustic Alchemy weaves their musical spell at the MACC

Acoustic Alchemy casts their sonic spells at the MACC this Tuesday. Founded by guitarists Nick Webb and Greg Carmichael, the band has produced superbly crafted music across three decades, five record labels, and several shifts of genre name.

Carmichael is a lifelong musician with a wry British sense of humor. He spoke with Summit from Waikiki, while getting ready to play The Blue Note. His parents had started him on ukulele, interestingly, to test his resolve before buying a guitar. He persevered.

“I got to the end of school and when the careers masters asked, well what are you going to do, and I said I want to be a guitarist,” Carmichael recalls. “They looked down the list and they suggested maybe I should join the Army to pursue a career as a musician. So I left school, and I managed to get into the London College of Music. That sort of deferred getting a job, and I could spend four years studying and doing something I loved.”

At the same time, Webb was formulating a dream of blending acoustic and electric guitar in a jazz format, now more common, but unknown at that time. When they met, Carmichael had recently graduated with a degree in classical guitar and formed a band afterward to do local gigs. Webb had been playing as a duo with another classical guitarist, Simon James, who left to pursue other interests.

“Nick had stayed on the lookout for a nylon string guitarist, because that was the thing,” Carmichael relates, “the combination of steel string and nylon string, that sound together.”

Webb saw him play and immediately invited him to join Acoustic Alchemy.

“I said, that sounds interesting,” Carmichael says. “How many in the band? And Nick said, it’s just me.” Carmichael chuckles.

The Acoustic Alchemy sound is well established now, but success did not come easily at first.

“When we started, it was very much a unique thing,” Carmichael recalls. “We started writing together and put together a demo to try and get a deal. But in England, the idea of instrumental guitar music, they just weren’t interested in it.”

One evening, Webb arrived at their gig playing at a wine bar with a newspaper ad for a newly formed airline.

“It said, ‘entertainment for Virgin Airlines required, jugglers and fire eaters need not apply,’” Carmichael laughs.

Branson wanted acoustic musicians to stroll the aisles after dinner and before the movie to break up the long Trans-Atlantic flight. Payment was a round trip flight to New York. Having no success with the British record companies, Webb and Carmichael decided to try their luck in the US. They made their way to Nashville, where they could crash at a friend’s place.

Their timing was perfect, because New Age music was taking off. While they had never heard of New Age, their sound fit the genre perfectly. The friend introduced them to Tony Brown at MCA, who was about to release a set of records by artists including Larry Carlton. A few weeks after their return to London, Brown signed them and sent funds to record their first album, Red Dust and Spanish Lace.

“It was the strangest thing, because Nashville is associated with country music,” Carmichael says. “It was really just luck and that cliché of being in the right place at the right time. Then it snowballed, because there were a lot of great musicians who realized they could play without needing to sing.”

A tune from the album called Mr. Chow captured the zeitgeist and became a hit on what eventually turned into Smooth Jazz radio. The band soon moved from MCA to GRP, which was a major label at the time, big enough to provide recording budgets, tour support, and marketing to propel the band to stardom.

During recording of their Positive Thinking album, the dream bubble burst. Webb was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died before the album could be completed. Carmichael was devastated.

“It was always the two of us who were Acoustic Alchemy, and Nick was the more gregarious one, Carmichael explains. “I didn’t know whether I could keep it going without Nick, because we were a partnership. When he died, I felt duty bound to finish the album.”

Producer John Parsons played the guitar parts and Carmichael faced the decision of whether to tour to support the album. They did indeed tour, and that is where Carmichael found the reason to go on.

“It was the people coming up after a gig on this tour saying we love your music, you’ve got to keep this thing going,” he says.

Carmichael’s depth of feeling for the band’s fans transcends his English emotional reserve.

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“There’s a lot of loyal people,” he relates. “And it’s very touching, because we come out to sign CDs after every gig and you get to chat with people. You’ve got people who have been fans for a long time, and then you’ve got the children who were like five and six and their parents played them Acoustic Alchemy. They’re now fully grown with kids of their own. It’s really nice support.”

The MACC provides superb acoustics of its own, perfect for seeing great players like Acoustic Alchemy.

6/21, 7:30 PM. Maui Arts & Cultural Center (MACC) 1 Cameron Way, Kahului, HI 96732 (808) 242-7469. Tickets $50 to $80. mauiarts.org/

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About Stephen Fox

Stephen Fox
Stephen Fox is an academic, journalist, and musician living on Maui. Fox holds a doctorate in Cross-Cultural Psychology from Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand and a master’s in Community and Cultural Psychology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, along with a BA in music from Manoa. He teaches currently at UH Maui. His academic research primarily focuses on the psychological benefits of participation in traditional ethnocultural arts. Musically, Fox has composed an extensive list of film and documentary scores and has performed in rock and world music with masters from a number of cultures. As a journalist, Fox writes primarily about music, and fondly recalls interviews with jazz icon Herbie Mann and The Door’s Ray Manzarek shortly before their deaths. He has also interviewed dozens of other artists who are still alive.

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