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MICHAEL BIANCO  /    "Best awe-inspiring site in a New Age club"

Although he took some time off from the Young Circle venue - thanks to a dispute over money, what else?-guitar great Bianco is back at the Now Art Cafe, dropping jaws left and right with his remarkable techniques. Finger tapping, hammer-ons and a variety of electronic effects astonish, as does Bianco's mastery of the 10-string Chapman stick. But when the Boston native gets both his seven string Ibanez and  his six-string Fender humming simultaneously, it's sheer magic. Cafegoers are transfixed as Bianco creates sustained notes like a mad scientist bent over his instruments. Inspired by the likes of Jeff Beck and Steve Vai, this fretboard phenomenon appeals across genre lines, impressing the Now Art's New-Agey clientele, rock fans and jazz fans alike.

 

Two Necks Are Better Than One

By Larry Getlen

Michael Bianco, a guitarist in his early forties with a distinct Boston accent, sits in an alcove in his musical home, the Now Art Café in Hollywood. With his longish black hair, casual sweatshirt, black jeans, and white sneakers, Bianco looks more like a second baseman for the neighborhood softball team than a musician whose guitar technique is nothing short of a marvel. At the moment he’s proudly displaying the new toy that consumes his life: a ten-string, single fret board, bass-and-guitar combination called the Chapman Stick.

‘After I tried the Stick for the first time, I said, ‘I don’t need a Stick,’ until I finally felt I should buy a Stick," says Bianco, looking around the room like a wound-up teenager. "So now I’m a stickist. I have been studying this intently for the past three days. You can say I have Stickorexia ---- I haven’t slept or eaten in three days because the Stick won’t let me. I can’t put it down, and I’m not getting the proper diet or sleep that I normally do

A passing waitress glances at Bianco’s prized instrument. "It’s ugly," she remarks. The guitarist nods in agreement, unfazed.

Bianco is at home here in this New-Age coffeehouse and art gallery, where he performs Wednesday through Sunday evenings. Sometimes he plays a seven-string guitar, which extends the normal guitar-range to a low B. But he’s known for playing two guitars at once. With one resting on a stand and the other hanging from his neck. Bianco fingers chords and bass notes with his left hand while playing melodies up and down the neck with his right. Instead of strumming the strings, he taps them, not unlike a keyboard player. The Stick is the newest instrument to be incorporated into his act.

"I added a second guitar to beef up my act a little bit, because I missed wailing on distortion," explains Bianco. "You can’t do that with normal two-handed tapping, because as soon as you put on the distortion, your two hands become a big blur. So I put the second guitar up here two years ago, and that became like a band member. On that guitar I can play screaming distorted leads, and it doesn’t affect my chord playing."

Not many guitarists do the kind of work Bianco does. Eddie Van Halen is renowned for his tapping technique, Stanley Jordan is recognized for his two-guitar jazz music, and Tony Levin (of the band King Crimson) has won praise for his handling of the Stick. At the Now Art Café, Bianco taps, plays a Stick, and handles two guitars at once.

"I look at it as a Field of Dreams type of thing." Bianco explains. "This is my baseball field; I’m building my field, ‘If you build it, they will come’ ---- that’s the attitude I have. I like being exclusive, because there are too many musicians out of work. Maybe you could call that fear…but I like the fact that I can build a following. I turn a lot of gigs down because they come on weekends. I’m going to stay here and try to find out how to get onto that other level and still play here, and not do the circuit.

He’s already done the circuit. Among other gigs, he has opened for the popular guitar-and-vocal jazz duo Tuck and Patti. "I thought that this is what I should be doing, half an hour a day for six days a week, going around the world." Instead, Bianco took matter into his own hands. In July 1997 he released his first CD, Bianco, which was recorded during two session at the Now Art Café. The CD offers a dreamy New Age sounds-cape, with beautiful, echoing melodies like Interlude / Lanzarote (believe it or not, a live solo performance without overdubs or backing tracks).

Bianco started playing guitar --- a six-string Harmony Acoustic – at the age of thirteen. "I think I traded my cousin a couple of Beatle albums for it," he recalls. "It didn’t have all six strings on it, only four, so I strung the last two string with the yellow rubber cords from some Fisher Price pull toys." He played in bands throughout high school, attended the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston for two years, then hit the road with a disco outfit called the Blue Fox Band for five years.

As Bianco takes the stage at the Now Art on a recent Wednesday night, there are only six people in the café. He begins the set with a gentle, Eastern-influenced tune. His playing is sharp and well defined, with a repetitive bass line droning beneath the song’s melody. After the successful test-run, Bianco switches to his seven-string Ibanez guitar.

"Welcome to the Now Art Café," he says in a deep, simmering voice. "How’s everything doing out there?" An elderly birthday boy named Barry screams out, "Play New York, New York." Bianco responds with a casual, "How about if I wing it?" then plays the standard as if he’d recorded the original with Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.

On standards like "Misty and "Summer time," the depth of Bianco’s talent surfaces. Melodic leads intertwine effortlessly with left-handed walking bass lines. Bianco switches his right hand to a six-string Fender Stratocaster propped up on a stand and wails out rapid-fire runs while continuing to play a strutting bass line on the Ibanez. He plays both guitars simultaneously without looking at either, eyes closed and head craned back.

Soon the bass and melody increase in speed. Bianco’s fingers sail in every direction, one hand sliding across one neck, the other attacking the second neck. Barry screams "Thatta Boy!" as Bianco loses himself in the song, ensconced in the comfort and security of home.

New Age Guitar

Michael Bianco is no stranger to the South Florida music scene. Playing a custom built 7-string guitar, using a two handed tapping technique, Michael is able to produce a unique full range "harp-like" sound, while using no overdubs or prerecorded tapes.

Throughout the past ten years, Michael Bianco has been playing various venues in South Florida including: several Riverwalk Jazz brunches, Festival of the Arts, Las Olas street fairs, as well as countless Restaurants and Hotels. Michael is currently performing at the Now Art Café in Hollywood every Saturday night.

Included is a sample of Bianco’s music played on a 7-string guitar. He also includes unique versions of popular songs and jazz standards during live solo performances.

Creature of habit

By Michael Koretzky

Seldom has one local musician been as closely linked with one local music club as Michael Bianco has been at the Now Art Café.

For up to five days a week over the past 3 ½ years, Bianco has played his unique brand of new age guitar instruments at the tiny downtown Hollywood coffeehouse – and almost nowhere else.

Last month, Bianco started playing Thursdays at the Winner’s Circle on Galt Ocean Mile. He plays mostly jazz standards from 6 to 9 p.m. – and then he rushes to the Now Art to play from 10 p.m. to midnight.

"I’ve gotten used to it", Bianco says with a shrug while sitting on one of the many couches at the Now Art Café. "On average, I had trouble holding a gig for more than six months. There aren’t enough people in South Florida that consider what I do an art form. They seem to appreciate it here. They’re into what I do."

What he does is play two guitars at the same time. Every Wednesday through Sunday, Bianco will sling on guitar over his neck and launch into a meandering, laid-back groove. A few minutes later, he’ll slide over to the other end of the small stage, where his second guitar is mounted on a stand almost at a 90-degree angle. With his right hand, he’ll tap that mounted guitar as if it were a keyboard, while still coaxing pleasing strains from the neck of the guitar around his waist.

The result, whether he’s playing one of his many originals or a cover of "Mr. Bojangles," is a combination of contemporary jazz and new age noodling.

"I don’t mind the term ‘new age’," Bianco says, shrugging again. "But I’m not a new age person. I don’t practice tarot or use crystals or anything like that."

Most of his fans aren’t new age, either. His biggest one is the owner of the Now Art Café.

"The first night I walked into the Now Art Café, he was playing," recalls Angel Spence, who took over the café after her boyfriend, artist James Morlock, died last year. "I didn’t realize it was live music. Then I saw someone stand up there playing, and I didn’t leave. I hear him five nights a week for the past three years, and I never get sick of it."

Neither does Bianco. A year ago this month, he quit his longtime job as a hairdresser at Lucho’s on Fort Lauderdale beach. After 15 years, he says, "It was time to move on. It was actually hard on my hands. My hands were always wet, and it would take the calluses off my hands."

Those calluses let Bianco’s hands dance all over two guitars not only at the Now Art but also during the recording sessions of other local musicians that Bianco sits in on.

"He’s really easy and quick to work with," says fellow Hollywood guitarist Michael Judge, who recruited Bianco to sit in on three of the seven songs he wrote and recorded this summer for a demo tape called "Doin’ What I can." One was blues and he wailed on it, one was country and he handled that quite well, and the third was more rock ‘n’ roll, and he has almost a banjo sound going."

Judge, a prolific songwriter who’s shopping his tape in Nashville, isn’t done working with Bianco yet. "Actually, I’ve got a couple tunes with him in mind," he says. "The interesting thing about Mike is that he almost does more than you want, and then you have to narrow it down. He throws a lot at you. He gets right into the groove of the song and compliments it quickly." With five days a week at the Now Art, some private gigs and his session work, Bianco only recently got around to recording his own album. Titled simply Bianco, the 12 original compositions were recorded live at – where else? – the now art café. On four of them, Bianco plays two guitars simultaneously. Although the music is mellow and Bianco seems to play it so effortlessly he says one reason he stays at the Now Art Café is that it’s a pain in the butt to set up his guitars.

"If I were to take this from gig to gig, it would take three hours to set up," he says. "It takes up eight channels of P.A., and it’s just complicated."

Unlike many of the local musicians he records for, Bianco has no grand scheme for playing small clubs, then big clubs, then getting signed to a major label and playing concert halls and selling a million records. It’s just not the way he thinks.

"I don’t know what I’ll be doing," he says with yet another shrug. "I just know I’ll be playing music."

If he does have one ambition, it’s to build a better guitar. He’s been collaborating with a friend in New York to design and construct a 13-string guitar.

"It’s going to be a seven-string and a six-string all in one neck," he says, with the most enthusiasm in his voice. "But it’ll have two sets of electronics, so they can operate separately."

Ask Bianco how he got started in music, and he’ll recall his infatuation with the Beatles and Hendrix. And he’ll even conceded that, "in the ‘70’s, I had high hair and wore Spandex pants. At the time, It was the right thing to do"

But somewhere along the line, Bianco says he just felt the need to experiment with the guitar, instead of banging out the same tired old chords.

"I was into rock ‘n’ roll, I was into jazz and I wanted to combine it into something that was me," he says. "I just arrived at a point where I wanted to refine the art of guitar. As long as I pay my bills while doing it, I’m happy."

With another shrug, Bianco gets up from the couch and heads toward the stage. It’s another night at the Now Art Café, and Bianco is paying the bills.

Seen but not scene

Trying to pin down local music’s defiant ones

By: Bill Meredith

The idea of trying to describe a music scene that, by nature, tries not to exist comes up every year at this time. It’s more of a paradox, even, then creating our own category of artists called Defies Our Categories – at least the parameters there are more finite (if we don’t create a category for their uncategorical music, they don’t get listed). But a scene? The following 26 bands and artists encompass about 80 musicians, and the majority of them have already been categorized in "scenes" in the past and play the music they play now to avoid being so again. It’s definitely a case of art over cash flow, since everyone from nightclub managers to record stores thrive on categorization. But remember, the root word to "defies" is "defy." "The more I got into the two-handed tapping thing, the less I needed a band," says Hollywood guitarist Michael Bianco of his down-sizing transition from band member to solo performer capable of sounding like a full band. Many guitarists play more than one guitar, switching off as a song dictates, but Bianco plays two simultaneously – an Ibanez seven-string on a standard strap around his neck and a Fender Stratocaster six-string mounted on a stand on-stage. The Ibanez’ extra string allows the former hairdresser to play hair-raising combinations of melodies and bass lines with his left hand alone, while tapping additional figures with his right hand on the Strat. For extra degree of difficulty earlier this year, Bianco bought a Chapman stick, the bizarre 10-stringed percussimelodic instrument .He breaks it out about once a week at his Now Art Café house gig in Hollywood, sometimes with a saxophonist and Zendrum player, who doubles on five string violin, sitting in. Scalp massage, anyone?

‘Sweet Retreat’

Art, music share spot on café menu

If you are lucky or just ask nicely, Michael Bianco will transform his guitar into a revving, bellowing Harley-Davidson.

Bianco’s prowess at New Age, electric jazz guitar is becoming somewhat of a local legend around Young Circle, where he plays at Now Art Café on Wednesday through Sunday night.

"Sometimes we have to ask real nice or get some big applause to get Michael to do the motorcycle. He knows how to end his show with a bang," said Angel Spence, an owner who presides over the café most nights.

People come from all over Broward to hear Bianco and soak up the ambience at 1720 S. Young Circle. It’s a place to take off your shoes, lie back on a big leather sofa, sip wine or coffee and contemplate the tiny angels – a nod to Spence – hanging from the sky-blue ceiling.

"We’re pretty casual here, even about our hours," Spence said. "We like to say that we open at 7 pm and stay open until the candles burn out, which is usually not before 12:30 and not after 2 a.m."

Most of the café’s bright paintings were done by James Morlock, who owned the café with Spence until he died of cancer in November 1996. He started the place as an art studio about six years ago, then built the café around it.

"Walking into the environment, with the blue sky and vibrant colors, this is a sweet little retreat from the real world," said Paul Callis of Pembroke Pines.

 

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