Grammy-winning artist William Ackerman offers rare show
William Ackerman inhabits a rare universe. Besides being an acclaimed, Grammy-winning guitarist, he is the founder of not one, but two record labels, including the massively successful Windham Hill. Also, he’s an in-demand producer with more than 70 albums (including many platinum and gold) to his credit.
Making his debut on Maui, this celebrated artist will perform Feb. 22 at the Makawao Union Church in a concert also featuring guitarist Todd Boston.
These days Ackerman rarely performs live, so his Upcountry appearance will be a treat for all fans of acoustic guitar artistry.
In his early years, Ackerman absorbed influences from pioneering guitarists like John Fahey and Robbie Basho, as well as the innovative piano music of French composer Erik Satie.
“When I heard it at 16, it just bowled me over,” Ackerman explains. “It was the austerity of what he did, especially in the face of his friends, Debussy and Ravel. He would strip his music down to bare-bones simplicity. I think it has something to do with the simplicity of my own music.”
Occasionally playing in Palo Alto, Calif., coffee shops while pursuing degrees in English and history at Stanford University, he recorded his first album of sublime solo guitar pieces in 1976. To his astonishment, it became a hit.
“When I was told I had to print an initial order of 300 records, I came very close to bailing on the entire thing,” he recalls. “I expected to have 150 in my closet for the rest of my life. The only place it was sold was a bookstore in Palo Alto, but I had a friend who did radio promotion for Credence Clearwater Revival, and he said, ‘If you give me some records, I’ll take them to radio.’ Two weeks later, major FM stations were playing it in Portland, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis and Philadelphia.”
At the same time he was pursuing a passion for construction while forming his own record label. “My business card in 1980 read, ‘Windham Builders/ Records/Music,'” he explains. “I was doing as very extensive remodel in Palo Alto and had stripped the entire roof off, but I was divided between that business and what was happening with Windham Hill Records, so I asked to take a few days off. In the summer it simply never rains, but that night it absolutely poured. The light fixtures were filled with water, the ceiling was sagging and the very valuable oak flooring had buckled. If there was ever a moment in which there was a clear question: ‘Are you going to continue to try and do both?’ As much has I love construction, I had just played the first paying gig of my life selling out the Seattle Opera House, and Windham Hill had just gone crazy. You could just not say no to that.”
With the explosion of interest in artists on his label like innovative guitarist Michael Hedges and pianist George Winston, whose album, “Autumn,” eventually sold multiplatinum, Ackerman discovered he had created a ground-breaking record company promoting a whole new genre of instrumental music that some labeled New Age.
“The entire experience was such a tiger by the tale sort of thing,” he continues. “Major labels were calling and saying they want to distribute us, and we became 10 times more popular in Japan than America. The smallest growth year in the first five years was 597 percent. We had growth years of 2,000 percent. It was all completely crazy.”
The company flourished at an opportune moment when there was a yearning for something that was more pastoral and relaxing and reflective than the thumping disco and raucous rock of the time.
“It was a time when the aesthetic was still back to the land, the hippy nature thing,” he says. “Disco was in charge of the air waves, with all electronic beats. Windham Hill stepped into that spot, and it was acoustic and real on a very human level. It was very much needed.”
And then there came a point when the stress of running the company became too much, and he bailed. “The notion that I was a CEO wasn’t what I wanted,” he reveals. “The early days were so much fun, and then it became a corporation. In 1984, I thought I was dying of something. I was exhausted, and I was clinically depressed. So I left as CEO and stayed as chairman. I couldn’t deal with the day to day anymore. I went out to Vermont and bought some land and started building. I had been living the poodle existence, where I would get up in my very nice house and put on my very nice clothes and drive my very nice car. It was so removed from the guy who used to surf and hike in the Sierras.”
Having released more than 20 gold and platinum records over the years, he won a Grammy Award in 2005 for his album, “Returning,” which featured refined, fresh impressions of some of his most popular compositions.
“I had thought it would be relatively simple to do, but the problem was I had a huge history with every piece,” he notes. “It proved to be difficult. My early version of ‘Bricklayer’s Daughter’ was a young guy in the studio with not a lot of money and time, and he’s kind of marching through the tune. Now I had taken time to really interpret them as close to some Platonic ideal as I could get.”
These days Ackerman feels most content producing other artists, particularly for his own West River Records label.
“I pretend to regard my own music avocationally, but really my job has always been to produce other artists,” he explains. “I still produce 10 to 14 artists per year, and that’s what I love. In terms of music, I perform very little. This is one of the few times that I’ve got up on even a small stage in a long, long time.”
Legendary drummer Mick Fleetwood will be a special guest at the free 34th annual World Whale Day Celebration on Saturday at Kalama Park in Kihei.
Mick will join the R.E. Metoyer Blues, Rock and Soul Revue during the fest. He will also serve as the grand marshall in the Parade of Whales, which kicks off the celebration at 9 a.m. along South Kihei Road.
Other performers at World Whale Day include John Cruz, George Kahumoku Jr., Anuhea, Ekolu, Marty Dread, Na Hoa, Dr. Nat and Rio Ritmo and the Tahitian dance group Manute’a Nui E.
Among the festivities planned for Valentines, Amy Hanaiali’i will perform with her band and a string section from the Maui Pops Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Yokouchi Pavilion and Courtyard. This one-of-a-kind concert will celebrate all things romantic under a Leo full moon.
The multi-Na Hoku Hanohano Award winner added two more trophies to her collection last year for contemporary album and female vocalist of the year for her CD, “My Father’s Granddaughter.”
Tickets are $35 and $45, with a limited number of $65 premium table seats. For tickets, call 242-7469 or visit www.mauiarts.org.
Performing with the Haiku Hillbillys and as a solo artist, Randall Rospond is about to release a new CD, “Randall Rospond Trio – Recorded Live,” at the Manao Radio Studios. Known for his ebullient fusion of Americana roots, country and boogie, Randall took the rare step of recording an improvised, unrehearsed jam with bassist Danny M and drummer Kerry Sofaly.
“The music captured reflects our shared musical interaction, and I became inspired to put out this live document,” says Randall.
The album’s catchy opening funk jazz instrumental immediately lures in the listener to a collection of beguiling tracks reflecting his varied influences, most notably the gentler side of the Grateful Dead.
The Randall Respond Trio will host a CD release party Feb. 21 at Stella Blues Cafe in Kihei with two performances: a dinner show and late show. Dinner seating begins at 6:30 p.m., with a concert following from 7:30 to 9 p.m. The second show begins at 9:30 p.m. Admission is $20 for the first show (music only) and $15 after 10 p.m. Admission price includes the new CD.
Maui’s Anuhea will also celebrate Valentine’s Day with two shows at Stella Blue’s Cafe. Her latest CD, “Butterflies,” captures the popular artist with a live set recorded on the Mainland.
Dinner seating is at 5 p.m., with music following from 6 to 7:30 p.m. The second show starts at 9, with a dinner menu available at 8 p.m. Cost is $60 for four-course dinner and music, and $30 for just music. Reservations are required for both shows. Call 874-3779.