Pepe Romero at the Guitar Festival

For guitar afficionados there is no better place to be in the first days of Autumn than New York City. For the past four years David Spelman, a protean guitar enthusiast, has presented a beguiling array of performances under the rubric of the New York Guitar Festival. This fall's festival, for instance, included a Baptist Blues frenzy of sacred pedal steel, tributes to fallen icons Jerry Garcia and George Harrison, an electric guitar quartet reading from dense scores, Andy Summers (of The Police) playing Brazilian tunes, and downtown polymath Elliot Sharp torturing an acoustic guitar in homage to John Fahey. 

The festival ended, or so it seemed, with a lovely solo recital by Spanish legend Pepe Romero at the 92nd St. Y. The Romero's are considered to be the First Family of the Classical guitar. Mr. Romero, now in his late 50s, has been performing since he was 7 years old, and his impeccable if conservative all-Spanish program flowed from the stage with easy inevitability. The reception that the maestro received from the well-heeled Upper East Side crowd was indeed fit for royalty, and after three encores, including the tender classic "Recuerdas de la Alhambra", Mr. Romero made his final bow and strode from the stage. But the last act was yet to come. 
Half an hour later a small entourage, including Mr. Spelman, Mr. Romero, his agent, friends, and well-wishers, joined across the street from the Y for dinner and drinks at Café Lex. As the group surveyed the menu, the waiter, himself a Spaniard, asked if in fact the man seated in front of him was Maestro Romero. The waiter's face lit up with glee, and he rushed to the back to inform the owner. Both returned and respectfully implored the Maestro to perform for the patrons in the Café. Drinks for the entourage were on the house. The whole table breathed in as Mr. Romero considered the offer. "Well, why not?" he cried suddenly. "David, you have your guitar here? Great! Give it to me." 
With Mr. Spelman's "Brune" concert classical in tow, Mr. Romero casually walked up to the bar and seated himself on a stool. A buzz began throughout the small café, which then turned into something approaching silence, and as Mr. Romero began to play, he suddenly looked completely at home. One wondered momentarily if he would burst into "Let the Good Times Roll." He played a simple, incandescent piece, Spanish, of course, called "La Paloma". The patrons, forks held aloft, faces beaming, listened to the gentle melody and syncopated Moorish rhythms with rapt attention. Time stood still. Hemingway could have emerged from the shadows to buy a drink for Picasso. 
When it was over a man rushed from his table with a program and said, "Please- my son was ill and couldn't attend the concert. Would you sign this?" The applause died down, dinner resumed, free drinks arrived, and that "only-in New-York" sensation encircled the entourage. 
Mr. Romero drank wine, ate pasta, and told guitar stories. With an Iberian accent as warm as his guitar tone he described a "guitar summit" tour in the mid-80's with the deceased jazz virtuoso Joe Pass. "Joe would come into my dressing room before the show each night, and I would be warming up. For Joe "warming up" meant something different than it did for me. He would sit down, light a long Cuban cigar, stare at me for a moment and say, 'OK, Fatso- play me some Bach...' that's how Joe got ready to perform!" 
Laughter, more drinks and stories, talk of a Joe Pass tribute for next year's festival, and a midnight cab ride to the Mayflower for Maestro Romero, as he contemplated a flight to Virginia at dawn. 
By Joel Harrison
(learn more about guitarist/composer/songwriter Joel Harrison by visiting
Pepe Romero (© Steve J. Sherman)
Pepe acknowledges applause after playing La Paloma at Cafe Lex's bar.
signing autographs. . . 
Pepe Romero and a fan play a "four hands"
duet after Pepe's impromptu, encore performance.
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