- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Listen to Guitar Shorty play the blues and his licks may remind you of B.B. King with a bit of Jimi Hendrix thrown in. Watch him perform and you are more likely to remember Ozzie Smith. Yes, that Ozzie Smith, the Hall of Fame shortstop who liked to start the inning with a back flip or three. Because even at age 67, Guitar Shorty still likes to put on a show.

“I’m a creator,” says Shorty, who will be flipping his way into Chick Hall’s Surf Club today. “A live show should be different from a record.”

Born David William Kearney in 1939 and raised by his grandmother in Kissimmee, Fla., Shorty, as he likes to be called, received his moniker when he was just a teenager playing among seasoned veterans in Walter Johnson’s 18-piece orchestra. Every night, Florida-based music promoter Dewey Richardson would stir up the audience by announcing that he was bringing out a wunderkind named Guitar Shorty.

The developing musician grew into an entertainer while playing with Guitar Slim, the Mississippi-born bluesman known for his flashy suits and dyed hair. It was Slim who taught Shorty how to rev up the audience with a high-energy stage presence.

“I learned showmanship from Slim,” says Shorty, who since those early years has played with everyone from Little Milton to Johnny Copeland. “And Ray Charles taught me music.”

Of course, there were a couple of years early on when he didn’t play. As you might expect for a bluesman, there was a woman behind it all.

“I put the guitar down and got me a day job,” he says. “During those two years I was the loneliest person in the world.”

It took B.B. King to rescue Shorty from the doldrums. One night in Chicago the legendary blues guitarist called him up on stage to perform but was apparently unwilling to lend him Lucille when he saw that Shorty didn’t have his guitar.

“He called me back into his dressing room and read me up and down,” Shorty recalls. “I went home and went straight to my bedroom, got down on my hands and knees and pulled my guitar out from under the bed.” He hasn’t looked back since. (The woman for whom he tried to fit into the 9-to-5 world left when she saw he wasn’t ready to stick with the day job only.)

Shorty was married for a time to Marsha Hendrix, stepsister of Jimi. She used to sit in the shadows at his gigs. Shorty still swears he can hear his own licks in “Purple Haze.”

• • •

Singer-songwriter M. Ward (the initial stands for Matt), who just released his fifth album, “Post-War,” performs at the Birchmere tomorrow.

The backward-looking but forward-thinking musician has been lauded by the critics for an atmospheric sound that borrows a page or two from the best of ‘60s folk-rock while injecting a healthy measure of modern introspection.

Don’t expect a topical singer like some early Phil Ochs clone; for Mr. Ward, the personal trumps the political.

Critical buzz about Mr. Ward has been building since he opened for The White Stripes during their U.S. tour last year. He also has performed on the “Monsters of Folk” and “Vote for Change” tours.

“It was never a dream of mine to make a living doing music,” Mr. Ward says. “I just wanted to make songs and give them to friends.”

He learned to play guitar by making his way through “The Beatles Anthology” while in high school back in Southern California. After saving money for a four-track, Mr. Ward spent hours recording his own songs.

“I was never the most extroverted guy in high school, so this was huge for me,” he says.

Today, he often combs through his old four-track tapes for material. “It’s kind of an accidental concept,” he says. “I look for songs that kind of fit together. You learn a lot about yourself personally when you do that, by paying attention to lyrics that just came out of nowhere.”

From the Beatles, it was a linear leap to musicians like slide guitarist Elmore James or fingerpicker John Fahey, both known for their spare-but-layered approach to sound.

“I think I’ve become a better player by learning songs and experimenting with songs than just learning fancy guitar work,” he says. “Fahey’s music, that kind of hybrid between classical music and old blues, is just amazing.”

He recently wrote the liner notes for Vanguard’s tribute album to Mr. Fahey, which included his own versions of “Bean Vine Blues No. 2.”

“What I’m drawn to now are specific instrumentalists that are able to change music just by using the instruments they play,” Mr. Ward says. “Something that I’m really getting tired of in modern music is that people care more about their angst then they do about the music.”

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