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Former Stranded Lad finds himself in flamenco guitar
By Thomas Crone - Photo by Thomas Crone
Posted On: 07/31/2006   

There was a time when Lliam Christy was one of the hottest rock guitarists in St. Louis, with a reputation as someone who was plenty versed in jazz, as well.

His notoriety in town was probably cemented with a long run as the lead guitarist in The Stranded Lads, a pop-rock group that never enjoyed a national breakthrough, despite years of reigning as one of St. Louis’ favorite concert draws. Christy added to his rep with a shorter run as fill-in guitarist for Pale Divine, joining after the rock band’s single record, with Atlantic, “Straight to Goodbye,” was released.

After a stint in Rainbox, made up of former members of The Stranded Lads and Pale Divine, and session work with all types of St. Louis or St. Louis-bred acts (Robynn Ragland, The Hot House Sessions), Christy found himself in a unique situation not quite five years ago. His father met a local flamenco player, Fritz Lerma, who was heading up the group Los Flamencos.

“He was looking for another guitarist to play with,” Christy said of the now-D.C.-based artist. “We got together and he offered to show me how to play flamenco, in exchange for putting in enough effort to accompany him. It was a strange twist.”

Los Flamencos incorporated not only the two guitarists, but also dancers, principally Beth Steinbrenner, who continues with the group today. The act found work at clubs and restaurants that were sympathetic to the flamenco sound, like Modesto, where Los Flamencos maintains a long-running Monday night gig. The group’s also been slotted at special gigs around the Midwest.

Before locking into a regular schedule with the group and a stint as a solo performer in the style, Christy had to go through a period of relearning. An excellent player and solid live performer, he had to begin the process of mastering a whole new discipline.

“It feels like a definitely different time in my life,” Christy reflected. “It’s, like, before flamenco and after flamenco. There are different markers in a person’s life, and it really has been a big change. It’s almost been like thinking differently. That sounds a little silly, but you do. You approach things with … I don’t know how to describe it, but life seems more interesting. Rock ‘n’ roll is fun; jazz is challenging. But flamenco is almost like a religion. You could say the same thing about jazz, but there’s something about when you get into it, into the zone, where you’re playing. It’s addicting, it’s very addicting. You have to acquire a certain amount of knowledge. When you do, it sucks you in.”

That’s proven by the fact that Christy’s taken workshops in Spain, the birthplace of the sound, as well as his strict insistence that he’s not looking for another gig. Though he’s been publicly playing flamenco, he still gets the occasional nibbler from a local group, looking to add some star appeal on guitar.

“Yeah, occasionally, not as much anymore,” Christy said. “Most people know I’m concentrating on flamenco guitar. But yeah, I’ve turned away situations just because I’m trying to focus my energy on what I’m doing. You have to pick your battles and focus, and that’s what I’ve done. I’ve focused on this thing, aside from recording with [former Stranded Lads songwriter] Andrew John to help him complete his new CDs.”

Part of the appeal of his current work is the flexibility that it offers. “It’s nice to be a solo performer,” Christy said.
But the fact is, some of his work is done in the context of a busy restaurant. A recent Saturday night gig at Mirasol found him playing to a somewhat-empty dining room on a night when business was strangely slow. Of those who were in place, maybe only a few were listening to the song.

It’s a test that many solo acts have to regularly endure, and it requires the ability to maintain an excellent performance while playing to an unpredictable audience.

“Flamenco has so many aspects to its playing,” Christy said. “You can put in a strong performance without a drummer. It has a different harmonic approach than rock or blues or jazz or bluegrass; it has more aspects of the Middle East, North Africa, a Moorish influence. To me, it’s very attractive to hear. If somebody’s real interested, they may come up and know more about it. You usually don’t hear flamenco around St. Louis, unless it’s a special show, someone coming in from out of town. People who are keen to it have a definite interest in it. For other people, it’s nice background music, which is fine, too. You can’t please everybody.

“I always try to play for at least one person,” he added. “Maybe there’s one particular person that’s tuning in and I try to perform for them, actually directing my energy to them. If you’re just background, and know that no one is listening to you in a restaurant situation, you play for yourself. I’m always working on learning new stuff, new pieces and trying to perfect technique. But if you know someone’s dialed in, it changes your level of playing, you really try to perform as well as you can. That makes a good night for me, if someone’s enjoyed their night. And it’s nice if you sell CD. It’s a nice feeling to know they like it enough to come up and buy one.”

Christy plays two weekly gigs, with rare exceptions: Mondays at Modesto, The Hill’s popular tapas restaurant, with the full Los Flamencos; and Saturdays, solo, at Mirasol in The Loop. He’s also scheduled to perform Aug. 25 at 6 p.m. at the Saint Louis Art Museum’s Art After 5 event. Other show dates and information on Christy’s CD, “Guitarra Flamenca,” are available at www.los-flamencos.com and www.myspace.com/lliamchristy.

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