He was playing a show at Dixon Mounds Museum as part of Chris Vallillo’s Hickory Ridge Concert Series when his musical consciousness awoke.
“When we took a break, Chris said, ‘Man you have that style down pat,’ and I didn’t even know it. So I did some research and sure enough the stuff I was playing was Piedmont Blues,” said Berchtold before giving a brief thumping sample of Chicago blues on his acoustic guitar.
“Piedmont has more of an alternating thumb and it’s more melodic,” said Berchtold, who then broke into a 15-second demo of the more intricate Piedmont style.
“It’s a nice, full sound and it’s just fun to play,” said Berchtold.
Digging into the old players, he found artists including Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, whose juxtaposed names caught the eye of blues fan and Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett. Berchtold also found Blind Blake, whose “Police Dog Blues” has become a staple in Berchtold’s repertoire.
“I learned this song even before I learned it was Piedmont,” said Berchtold. “I heard it on one of my all-time favorite albums, 'Splashdown' from Hot Tuna.”
That longtime acoustic group began as a side project of Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy in the late 1960s. Kaukonen has held a guitar pickers camp in the Appalachian area of Ohio for some years now. Berchtold said he’s attended twice.
“It’s great personal instruction,” said Berchtold. “One of my fond moments of being down there was the student performance where you get in front of everyone and play something you’ve been working on. I asked Jorma if he would play lead on one of my songs, and he did.”
Berchtold then broke into that original song, titled “Serenity.”
“We practiced it once and then Jorma said, ‘OK, I’m ready.’ When we got on stage he played a real cool lead on it,” said a still impressed Berchtold, who said Kaukonen gave him a great tip that has stuck with him.
“One of the things he said was the groove was all important, no matter what you do,” said Berthtold.
“He said, 'Everybody who plays live music has this happen: you get lost. Every once in a while you play a wrong chord or whatever. The worst thing you can do is stop and swear,’” Berchtold said before bursting out in a hearty laugh. “I actually did that my first show. I’ve learned a lot since then.”
“But Jorma held up his thumb and said, 'This is the groove right there,'" said Berchtold. "'No matter what happens, you keep that thumb going.’ I tell you that has saved my butt many times.”
Whether he’s “saving himself” or “nailing it,” Berchtold most often plays solo, though you can occasionally catch him in public with multi-instrumentalist Brian Stear. Berchtold said the Piedmont style lends itself to solo and dual performers.
“It’s such a full style of playing, it doesn’t really lend itself to a band very well. When you start getting all those instruments, the guitar gets lost in the mix,” said Berchtold.
Despite his love of Piedmont Blues, he says he is not a one trick pony, or a blues purist.
“People ask me all the time what I play, and I don’t have a answer because I play everything except country and rap,” laughed Berchtold. “It’s folk, roots, blues, ragtime … I do some gospel and instrumental music. I love Leo Kottke and John Fahey and Reverend Gary Davis has some wonderful stuff,” he said before breaking into a Kottke musically inspired original titled “Tree Frog Tickle.”
“It’s sort of a tribute to my older brother, who passed away from COPD a few years ago,” said Berchtold. “That’s how cigarettes get you if you don’t have cancer. He was a great guy and I have a lot of great memories of him. His nickname was Tree Frog.”
Which is a play on “Birch Tree” which can easily morph into Berchtold or “Berch Toad.”
Listening to Berchtold play the song in the GLT studio, one can hear the short subtle picking in the instrumental song where the words “Tree Frog Tickle” would land if words were included. It’s a beautiful tribute by a man with a beautiful tone and groove on his acoustic guitar.
David Berchtold plays Nightshop in downtown Bloomington on Tuesday, May 15, from 6–9 p.m. He says he’s also available to teach the finger picking style that has been central to his musical life for decades.
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