“Norman is the home of the Sooners, right?” Eric Sommer asked.
The singer/songwriter from Maine will be playing his first Oklahoma show Saturday evening at the Blue Bonnet Bar. When told his venue is more of a shots and suds rather than fancy cocktails joint, Sommer said it sounded like his kind of place. It doesn’t take long listening to the 40-something’s music to understand his performance style tends to raucous rather than reserved.
“I’ve gotten a lot more experimental on stage,” Sommer said. “There’s a lot of lap-slap, tone, feedback and high volume harmonics.”
Instead of the typical soft and mellow singer/songwriter schtick he does more of a grab- onto-your-seat kind of show.
“I’ll be doing a lot of slide guitar with open tuning on new songs,” he said. “When I hit Little Rock, Ark., my show starts at 1 in the morning and goes until 5:30. What time do they close the bars in Oklahoma? I play until the lights go on, so it doesn’t matter.”
Sommer travels with his collection of eight little tube amplifiers each with unique tone. He’s not a fan of solid circuit amps. His arsenal of guitars numbers about the same. He sings through the same model of 1951 microphone that Johnny Cash used for “I Walk the Line” because of its warm, scratchy sound.
“I like tradition and the older sounds,” Sommer said. “I don’t do any looping. Is looping music? I don’t know. If you don’t have a band why try to make one out of electronic gizmos.”
With this ethos, as you might imagine Sommer plays guitar like a demon unleashed. You really can’t make observations like that without being a bad-ass and he’s the genuine article. When asked who taught him to play guitar Sommer offered either the “real story” or the “serialized version.” The former is set overseas.
“When I was really young, 5 or 6, I grew up in southeast Asia because my dad was in Bangkok and Saigon,” he said. “I had picked up a guitar and was trying to make sense out of it.”
By age 10 he was singing songs and holding his own with the guitar.
“I got a little job at The Trolley in downtown Bangkok playing for GIs on R&R from Vietnam,” he said. “One guy, Jim Hall, took me aside and showed me how to finger pick. He showed me how to play ‘Freight Train’ by Elizabeth Cotten and how to do it with steel finger picks which very few people do now. He was there three weeks, came by every other day and showed me how to do it, then I taught myself the rest.”
Back in the states Sommer wasn’t even a teenager yet when he was busking on the streets of Boston.
“It was a wonderful scene,” he said. “You’d see Bonnie Raitt walking across the street with a guitar going to play happy hour at Jack’s. Captain Swing which became The Cars was playing at the Eliot Lounge.”
When it comes to songwriting Sommer leaves no stone unturned.
“I like looking around the corner, behind the building and inside the lamp shades,” he said. “Song writing is all about seeing where you are, being the person that you are and not anything else.”
Sommer writes a lot, including a couple of books to his credit.
“It’s stuff I write on the road because I see so much,” he said. “I can’t have a guitar on the front seat because then I’d crash.”
Sommer doesn’t wait for the muse to descend, he demands that she show up.
“When I’m ready to write, let’s have it,” he said. “Just look around you, look anywhere and you’ll find something to write about.”
During the interview Sommer took fascinating conversational side trips to an Alan Ginsburg festival in New York, Somerset Maugham’s work habits and a thumbnail sketch of Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man.” He’s obviously a guy with inborn curiosity who will stop to look at Christmas lights or car wheels.
“There’s history in a bar stool you can write about,” he said. “There’s great stuff in a license plate. When someone asks Guy Clark how to write, he says ‘Where’s your pencil ?’ Just shut up and write. My inspiration is everything, everyday and everywhere.”
If You Go
What: Eric Sommer and Local Martyrs (Vanessa Scholle and JR Connaughton) in concert.
Where: The Blue Bonnet Bar, 321 E. Main St.
When: 9 p.m. Dec. 28
Eric Sommer has been playing guitar with distinctive style since learning how as a child in a Bangkok saloon.