If you’ve ever been to NAMM, the enormous National Association of Music Merchants trade show that descends upon the Anaheim Convention Center every January, then you know there are few places to escape from the huge, disorienting maw of the main floor’s cacophonous schmooze. But there is some respite and considerable musical fascination to be found in the area dedicated to acoustic instruments — and not just acoustic six-string guitars; there are plenty of those up on the central throughway. In this more lightly trafficked area you can find world-class musicians demonstrating songs and performance techniques at the booths of independent luthiers and makers of banjos, harmonicas, harps, mandolins, ukuleles, violins, and all manner of exotic instruments.
It’s an intriguing place to while away an hour or two, and it pops into mind while considering the numerous instruments mastered by Dick Hensold, even though several are too esoteric even for NAMM’s all-encompassing reach. Based in Minnesota, Hensold is generally acknowledged as North America’s foremost Northumbrian smallpiper, so that small bagpipe heads his list of musical trade tools. He also plays Montgomery smallpipes, Scottish Highland and reel pipes, the Swedish säckpipa — all bagpipes requiring varying degrees of finesse and dexterity — beyaw (a double-reed Cambodian oboe), recorder, seljefløyte (Norwegian willow flute) and low whistle. There’s more, but you get the picture. Even among full-time folk artists, the curiosity and focus required to master that range of comparatively rare traditional instruments is uncommon, and the acoustic music they produce is subtly yet discernibly different in tone.
With that kind of arsenal, it’s no surprise that Hensold specializes in traditional Celtic and Swedish music. He has also made interesting forays into baroque and Cambodian music, and while those styles are not at the forefront of new recordings he has been making with Irish guitarist Patsy O’Brien, that eclectic range of experience does flavor their playing. The two men appear in concert at Caltech this Saturday.
Hopefully some of the tunes for the album they hope to release in the spring will be featured in their setlist. O’Brien’s nimble fretwork and singing are front and center throughout “Braes of Balquhidder,” a text by 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Tannahill set to Hensold’s bittersweet melody. The easy, rhythmic flow between O’Brien’s guitar and Hensold’s pipes and whistles is nicely showcased during medleys of 18th- and 19th-century Cape Breton fiddle tunes and Celtic jigs, which should pair comfortably with the rest of their traditional repertoire.
Pasadena Folk Music Society presents Dick Hensold and Patsy O’Brien at Caltech’s Beckman Institute Auditorium, 400 S. Wilson Ave., Pasadena, 8-10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9; $20 ($5 for Caltech students and children). Info: (626) 395-4652. Dickhensold.com, patsyobrienswebsite.com, Caltech.edu