ARTS Pick: Pierre Bensusan

Guitar virtuoso Pierre Bensusan plays the Southern on Wednesday.
Image: LUCK Media & Marketing, Inc. Guitar virtuoso Pierre Bensusan plays the Southern on Wednesday. Image: LUCK Media & Marketing, Inc.

There’s no place that isn’t home to Pierre Bensusan.

The guitarist’s been on the road for four decades, picking more than singing, but still working a bit of both into his live shows. That schedule almost necessitates his being able to be comfortable anywhere. And he should be reasonably content in Charlottesville.

As WTJU’s Folk Director Peter Jones endeavors to re-establish Prism Coffeehouse, a folk enclave that hosted acts for about 40 years, Bensusan recalls the space’s artistic director lending his career a bit of assistance.

“Fred Boyce and his wife helped make an audience,” the guitarist said. “When his venue went away, it was harder to play Charlottesville.”

But Bensusan didn’t just benefit by having a spot to play during his tours through the States. Boyce was apparently an avid archivist, too.

“Over 25 percent of the recordings on Pierre’s 3-CD set come from the Prism archives,” Jones wrote in an email about Encore, Bensusan’s latest release. “The artistic director at that time…did an amazing job of recording nearly 16 years of concerts.”

The remainder of Encore is a mix of four decades of live performances the Algerian-born, French-raised musician’s culled from dates around the world.

“I made that first record when I was 17,” Bensusan said of the 1974 Près De Paris, which would eventually be released stateside through Rounder Records a few years later. “I was playing mandolin-I was playing bluegrass at the time. And was lucky enough to find myself on the road with Bill Keith. He put together a band to accompany him in Europe, and I was asked to join.”

There’s a bit of that bluegrass repertoire included on the second disc of Bensuan’s new release, contrasting starkly with the rest of the recording’s tenor. But the guitarist’s time touring with Keith, who’s pretty highly regarded among bluegrassers and banjo players, served as an important part of Bensusan’s development as a musician.

“One morning, I was playing my guitar,” he recalled. “And Bill was there. He said, ‘That was amazing. Would you like to play solo at the shows?’”

Those performances enabled Bensusan to return to venues across the continent, play solo, and make a name for himself, instead of simply being a part of someone else’s ensemble. But consulting Keith about the spirit of music, Bensusan said, also taught him to just “go out there and express myself.” Keith’s advice manifests itself in a loose and sometimes improvisational approach to performance on this latest batch of recordings.

Encore opens with Bensusan being introduced to an audibly excited Charlottesville crowd. The songs that follow ostensibly mirror his career—not just because Bensusan’s called just about everywhere home for a night during the last 40 years, but because both the performer and the performances are marked by all those places and their cultures. —Dave Cantor

Wednesday 4/9 An Evening with Pierre Bensusan, The Southern Café & Music Hall, 103 S. First St. 977-5590.

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