Dirty: Flamenco guitarist Lliam Christy staves off perfection

Oct 27, 2011 at 4:00 am

As 60 or so patrons file into the black-box theater at the Kranzberg Arts Center, a guitar player sits in the corner in the dark, a foot on the stage, a foot on the floor, tapping lightly to the rhythm. The night's production is Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding, a mythic play of soul-consuming passion, betrayal and violent retribution. The score is performed by flamenco guitarist Lliam Christy.

Watching Christy warm up and then slide his original themes and improvised traditional flamenco pieces in and out of Lorca's poetry, one notices how serene he looks, how easy he makes the constantly shifting rhythms and intertwined melodies of flamenco appear. He'd be the first to tell you he wasn't born to play in this most hieratic and demanding of styles, but he'd also tell you it has become his life's work.

As musical director for full-on flamenco performance troupe Los Flamencos and coleader of the Reventones, a Latin guitar group featuring Los Angeles-based guitarist and singer Jon-Oliver Knight, Christy has become the central figure in flamenco in St. Louis. Earlier this year, the Reventones released its second album, Dirty It, a collection of rumba and flamenco guitar pieces — augmented by light percussion, palmas, violin and voices — some written by Christy, some drawn from the classical and folkloric traditions. The music is at once lively and dense, playful and meticulous. It's gypsy music with a distinctively St. Louis back-story.

Christy grew up on the edge of St. Louis Hills, and as a teenager he found music so much more interesting than virtually anything else. He never graduated high school, but he ultimately earned a GED and went to college to study music full time. In the '80s and '90s, he built a reputation as one of the best rock-guitar players in town, playing with punk-pop band Marlin Monroe then the wildly popular cover band Big Fun before joining the Stranded Lads and doing a brief stint in Pale Divine. He formed and wrote songs for the short-lived original rock bands Rain Box and Tinfoil Antenna and was invited not once, but twice, by a young Sheryl Crow to join her band. He declined as if he knew something else was waiting for him down the road. Flamenco was still years away. He was still learning, still teaching himself the art of the guitar.

"I think any good musician is self-taught," he says. "That doesn't mean you won't learn something from somebody. But if you have to go to music classes to get every bit of knowledge, you won't really learn. I tell my own students now, 'I'm going to teach you how to teach yourself, that's where you really learn.' You don't want to be spoon-fed everything your whole life."

By the end of the '90s, Christy was ready to leave rock & roll (and ultimately his birth name William) behind and begin focusing almost exclusively on flamenco.

"I went to see Paco de Lucía in concert in 1997 when he played at Powell Symphony Hall," he recalls. "I went because I knew he was a phenomenal musician. I didn't think I would ever play flamenco. People said that I would be starting over from scratch. But I was pretty much bored with what was going on musically. I was looking for a new challenge. It turned out that I really did start over. I wasn't trained as a classical guitarist. It was very difficult, very frustrating. You can't just play what you hear. You technically don't have the ability, so you have to practice for a long time, making slow progress. It's a very slow learning curve with flamenco."

An invitation from Fritz Lerma, the previous music director of Los Flamencos, led to Christy following that difficult curve and joining the group full time. "I was thrown into a position where I had to play almost immediately," he says, "to accompany Beth Haney [now Steinbrenner] in Los Flamencos. Fritz would go out of town, and I would have to cover. I was forced to play all the time with a dancer. That is the best thing that can happen to a flamenco guitarist. The whole core is the compás, the rhythm, knowing how to accompany a dancer and a singer. It doesn't have that much to do with learning to play solos. That part is not important to the overall knowledge of flamenco. If you can't accompany a singer or a dancer, you don't have too much business playing solo. It's all based on the rhythm and the form."

In contrast to the precise, folkloric work of Los Flamencos, the Reventones' (which translates roughly as "the blowouts" or "explosions") approach to Latin music is more freewheeling and spontaneous. Most of the album Dirty It was recorded live at Christy's home in St. Louis, with a focus on the interplay between his guitar and Knight's guitar, cuatro and voice. From the delicate, shivering rhythms that lead off opening track "A Mi Hermana" to the neo-classical grace of "Vals Venezolano No. 2," it's the sound of two like-minded, deeply musically committed friends coming together as a single rhythmic and melodic voice.

"The premise of the Reventones is my interest in flamenco and the rumba," Christy says. "Even the stuff that isn't flamenco, we're approaching it from a flamenco guitarist's point of view. Jon Knight is a very good classical guitarist. His interests are in Latin music, South American music. And his interest is in singing. So the areas that I'm weak in, he's strong in. We're not stuffy about our music. We take a lot of liberties in terms of interpretation, and we'll improvise over classical forms. Anything we do that's classical is alive. We approach all of the songs more like jazz or flamenco."

Though he's established himself as the go-to flamenco guitarist and teacher in town, Christy is contemplating leaving St. Louis and heading west. "I would say in six months that I won't be here," he says. "St. Louis has been incredibly good to me, as far as being a professional musician. I do a lot of private events, which really pay the bills. Restaurant gigs give you exposure, but they don't pay that much. I have to be someplace else if I'm really going to further my career. I've known that for a long time, but I feel like the time has finally come. Sometimes you just know when that time comes."

Until that time does come, St. Louisans can still hear Christy perform as a solo guitarist at his residency at the Shaved Duck each Wednesday evening. A mastery of tradition runs through each strum and figure, but so too does his desire to keep the art physical, sensual and spiritual — keep it perfectly impure, keep it dirty.

"You have to be able to dirty it," he says. "I'm serious about that. If you can't dirty it, you're not going to make it as a flamenco musician. You can say the same thing about a blues musician or about rock & roll. It's got to be real. It has to come from your heart."