United in song

A soulful singer-songwriter, surfer and environmental champion, Australian musician Xavier Rudd is especially acclaimed for his skills on the didgeridoo, the unique Australian instrument known as the yidaki by Aboriginal people in the Arnhem Land region of the country’s Northern Territory.

“It’s part of my culture and I grew up playing it,” Rudd explains. “I could play it pretty quickly, and then I started learning guitar and it opened up a whole world of ideas and sound. It’s powerful, and it’s different from any other instrument. It’s a ceremonial tool, and the spirit of yidaki watches over us in a way. It’s from the creation time, the oldest instrument in the world. I often feel it’s the one thing that keeps our faith and looks after us.”

A mesmerizing artist live, in concert Rudd can draw from an array of instruments, including didgeridoos, lap steel guitar, acoustic guitars, assorted percussion, a stomp box, bass, harmonica and trumpet.

“I use a lot of instruments, and over time I would blend different instruments to layer sounds and moods in accordance of what a song was wanting,” he says. “I use a lot of handmade wooden instruments, and it became looked at as a one-man band.”

When he first performed on Maui in 2013, Rudd arrived as a solo artist able to play an array of three didgeridoos at one time. He next arrived with a drummer, and on June 23 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, he will perform as a trio accompanied by a drummer and keyboardist, members of his new United Nations band.

His recent tour of Europe was sold out at every venue. A U.K. Arts Desk review of his London show praised: “‘Follow the Sun’ has the audience in ecstatic raptures and ‘Nanna’ elicits the waving of many an iPhone in the air. Mixing up favorite songs rather than just pounding through the soundtrack of his most recent album, there are also a few covers thrown in for good measure. The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ finishes with a rave didgeridoo solo, and there’s a lush rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry.’ “

On his most recent album “Nanna,” Rudd assembled an international, multicultural group he calls the United Nations, comprised of musicians from Australia, Africa, Samoa, Germany and New Guinea.

“It’s a concept I’ve had for quite a while,” he says. “It was a coming together of different nations to bring the spirit of our ancestors together and share our music. Most of my musical career has been about making as much sound as I can, and with this one the challenge was to be as minimal as possible.”

His most reggae-orientated recording to date, “Nanna” was mixed at Jamaica’s Tuff Gong studio by Errol Brown, best known for his work with Marley.

“A thick reggae influence dominates ‘Nanna’ . . . but Rudd adds his twists and his band weave in their individual world music flavors,” praised a Rolling Stone Australia review. ” ‘Nanna’ is a beautiful celebration of global sound.”

“I’ve always wanted to make a reggae album,” he explains. “I’m a big fan of reggae, but it wasn’t really a conscious decision, it was just a platform for what we were doing. The way the songs came through me had that feel. A lot of my music is spirit driven, I just let it flow, and reggae became the theme.”

Rudd has long championed native rights, calling attention to the destruction of native lands and the loss of our connection to nature. Themes of living in harmony with nature and respect for indigenous peoples predominate in his songs.

“We called it ‘Nanna’ because it was about respecting our ancestors’ path and struggle,” he continues. “I’ve been told I’m a messenger for the people and I feel like that. A lot of my music comes through quite strong. When we play shows, it’s a celebration of creation. The opportunity to come together as one people from all our different backgrounds and celebrate the energy of consciousness is very important. As a host of that, I try to be as clear and pure as I can.”

*****

Acclaimed as one of the leading young lights of jazz, Esperanza Spalding performed a MACC concert last week that focused entirely on her latest album, the widely praised “Emily’s D+Evolution.” Presented as an unconventional performance art work, “Emily” was mostly framed in a rock-fusion context, like a cross between Laurie Anderson’s avant-garde adventures and the arty progressive rock of Robert Fripp’s King Crimson.

A brilliant bassist, obviously blessed with a beautiful voice that at times recalls Joni Mitchell at the height of her jazz excursions (especially on the marvelous “Noble Nobles”), the sound mix made it tough to decipher her intricate lyrics. If you were unaware of the album’s concept, you might have been mystified. And the album’s subtleties and nuances were lost in the harder-edged live presentation.

The show built to a climax with the stunning “Unconditional Love,” the most soulful, moving track on the album. It gave Spalding space to launch her power trio (lead guitarist Matt Steven and drummer Justin Tyson) into overdrive with some extended jamming that recalled legends like Cream at their most intoxicating.

After the close of “Emily,” she chose to leave her audience with an encore – a lovely a capella version of William Blake’s poem “Little Fly” (from “Chamber Music Society”) – where we got to truly marvel at her vocal talent.

*****

Over the course of two decades Acoustic Alchemy has won over legions of fans with its engaging acoustic guitar approach that blends a nylon string instrument with a steel string guitar. Co-founded by Nick Webb and Greg Carmichael, the band creates an attractive, refined sound laced with ethnic and jazz flavors.

Growing up in England, Webb studied jazz guitar at Leeds College of Music and was influenced by Scottish musician John Martyn. He attempted to earn a living as a folk rock singer.

“I ended up at Leeds doing a jazz and light music course,” Webb recalled in an old Maui News interview.

Teaming with former college mate Simon James, who had been trained as a classical guitarist, the first edition of Acoustic Alchemy was launched. When James left to study flamenco guitar in Spain, Webb reached out in 1985 to Carmichael, who had studied classical guitar at the London College of Music and played with some English jazz groups.

“It was about this time that this thing was happening in the states,” Webb continued, about the rise of the New Age music movement. “We did the ‘Red Dust’ album and it had this track, ‘Mr. Chow,’ a sort of Chinesey reggae number. All the radio stations played it to death.”

“Positive Thinking,” in 1998, was Acoustic Alchemy’s last recording with Webb, who died from pancreatic cancer. Despite this tragic setback, the band reconvened with guitarist Miles Gilderdale stepping out front.

Their most recent studio album, “Roseland,” continued their potpourri approach with elements of rock, country, folk, reggae, world music and jazz. And in 2014, they released “Live in London,” a double album featuring songs from “Roseland,” along with classic tracks from the band’s catalog.

Besides Carmichael and Gilderdale, the band features drummer Greg Grainger, bassist Gary Grainger and Fred White on keyboards.

“For a lot of people, instrumental music is just a sound that plays in the background,” Carmichael reported. “But we put a lot into it – with every record we’ve ever made. I’d like to think that after all these years, we’ve learned how to take people on a journey. A lot of our fans have said that we do that for them. As long as they keep coming back, and as long as they want to stay on that journey, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”

Reviewing one of the band’s recent concerts, the Pittsburg Post-Gazette noted: “With few wasted notes and moments, the band was locked in from the opening ‘Homecoming.’ It’s pleasant, melodic music with plenty of drive and kick that got the audience revved up, most notably on the bluesy ‘One for Shorty.’ “

* Acoustic Alchemy will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the MACC’s Castle Theater. Tickets are $50, $70 and $80 (plus applicable fees) and are available at the box office, by calling 242-4769 or online at www.mauiarts.org. Fifty cents from each ticket purchased will be donated to Mana’o Hana Hou Radio.