Arts and Entertainment

Pairing up a one-man band

Peter Spencer on tour at the Cantab in Cambridge, Mass.  -
Peter Spencer on tour at the Cantab in Cambridge, Mass.
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Peter Spencer celebrates a new CD and a fresh collaboration.

Until recently, Peter Spencer had never recorded with a pianist.

“Anyone who knows me and has heard me play knows that I’m a fingerpicking guitar player. I’m into that one-man-band thing,” Spencer said. “So it was a big change for me to have another instrument besides just rhythm-section instruments.”

That’s why at first, Spencer found it as curious as the next guy to be jamming with jazz pianist Dave Bristow on weekday afternoons as each waited for his students to arrive at Island Music Guild.

But he couldn’t deny their synergy. He credits, in part, Bristow’s jazz sensibility and technical acumen.

“I can talk to (Dave) about how to voice the chords, how to make it so that what he’s playing doesn’t duplicate what I’m playing,” Spencer said. “Which is this continual problem with the one-man band, trying to get people to play something different.”

Jamming led to recording; Spencer’s fifth CD, “From the Island,” marks the formal product of the musicians’ collaboration. It’ll make its debut at a release party and concert this Saturday evening at IMG.

With blues, R&B and hillbilly music serving as early influences, Spencer migrated from the post-industrial landscape of his childhood in Erie, Pa., traveling the country before landing in New York City in 1979. Weary of touring, his playing career morphed into one of full-time music journalism.

Ten years ago, he once again felt the pull of performing and the road, encountering a fresh audience of young roots music lovers along the way.

Spencer settled on Bainbridge in 2004, and his sense of the island began to permeate his songwriting. Most of the songs on the new CD were written here.

“The island and its society, its aesthetic, really is all through those songs,” he said. “And also, what it means to me personally to be here. So there are songs about my children, songs about traveling...‘From the Island’ was really the only title that stuck.”

The aesthetic Spencer points to is echoed anecdotally by other East Coast natives. He describes a combination of artistic smarts and a certain congeniality toward other artists, tempered by a need for solitude made possible only by living on an island.

Spencer himself initially thought he’d crave Seattle but found that for his first three years in residence, he rarely left the island. A “force field,” he calls it.

There’s receptivity on the part of audiences, too. In performance, Spencer has found the level of perceptiveness and understanding on the floor much higher than it is elsewhere. Even if audiences don’t “get” his music, they’re willing to like it. That leaves him free to do what he does, the way he wants to do it.

“I’m not trying to be just another lonesome cowpoke,” he said. “I like lonesome cowpoke music, in fact I love lonesome cowpoke music, and will do it from time to time. But I try to make it one flavor in the stew. People around here don’t get annoyed if I play rude games with their expectations.”

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