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Lindley's Got the World on a String

The muse has taken this fleet-fingered master from Madagascar to Norway. Next stop: San Juan Capistrano.


David Lindley definitely fits the description of a musician's musician. He possesses more than 100 musical instruments from around the world and is a virtuoso on all things stringed, from the electric guitar and fiddle to the bouzouki and Turkish saz.

Lindley's been mesmerizing audiences for more than 30 years. While he was a teenager growing up in San Marino his fleet-fingered wizardry first began attracting attention.

At 18, he took first place at the annual Topanga Canyon Banjo and Fiddle contest. His sizzling banjo work allowed him to repeat that feat the next four years. The streak ended only when contest organizers persuaded him to become a judge so that other contestants would have a chance at the top prize.

Now in his early 50s, Lindley continues to refine and expand his many instrumental skills with all the dedication of an artist trying to establish a reputation, rather than one content on leaning on one.

"It's funny how the [instruments] kind of raise their heads and say, 'It's time to work on this now,' " Lindley said with a chuckle in a recent phone interview. "You can hear the saz saying that as it's propped up in the chair.

"I really try to go over things over and over again until I get them. A lot of these things, especially the 12-string [guitar], require constant upkeep. The older you get, the more upkeep you have to do because it takes longer and longer to get into shape. It's muscles. You've got to keep them going. If you want to improve, which is what I want to do, you have to practice more and more all the time."

Lindley's prowess as an instrumentalist and singer will be on display when he teams up once again Saturday with Jordanian-American hand percussionist Hani Naser at the Coach House.

The longtime Claremont resident seems to have an insatiable musical curiosity. As a kid Lindley's household was filled with a variety of international sounds. He became engrossed in his father's eclectic album collection, which partly included Middle Eastern, Eastern and Mediterranean music.

Meanwhile, his brother Patrick, who is now a vaunted harpsichord player, exposed him to many classical recordings. Topping it all off were his own rock 'n' roll discs.

It was only fitting that Lindley's first prominent band was known largely for its complex musical stew. Kaleidoscope combined blues, rock, Cajun and Middle Eastern music. The group formed in Berkeley in 1966 and foreshadowed more widespread explorations of ethnic music by Western artists in the '80s and '90s.

"I get a lot of younger musicians coming up to me and saying, 'I listened to Kaleidoscope' or 'I found this Kaleidoscope album and you were doing interesting stuff way back then,' " he says.

In the '70s, Lindley made his mark as a crack side musician. He played on albums by James Taylor and Rod Stewart but was best known for his collaborations with Jackson Browne.

Lindley went solo in the '80s and recorded four big-label albums with his ever evolving backing band, El Rayo-X. He also solidified his reputation for mixing disparate musical styles. (For instance, he once recorded a reggae version of the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love.") But commercially his career never really took off and by the early '90s he was recording for his own Pleemhead company and shepherding world-music projects for the small but adventurous Shanachie.

A reference to Pleemhead being a record label sparks the feigned ire of the good-natured singer-guitarist, who counts voice impressions--he does a truly eerie James Stewart--among his nonmusical skills.

"It's not a record label," he said. "It's an audio company. The words 'record label' conjure up the evil spirits! So we stay away from them."

Lindley can go on ad infinitum about what he sees as the economic exploitation of artists within the corporate-rock structure. Today he's perfectly content to market his Pleemhead albums through mail order. He also has used the Internet to spread the word about his various projects.

Free from the pressures that come with a major record-label deal, Lindley has gotten even bolder with his musical explorations in recent years.

In 1992 he and like-minded guitarist Henry Kaiser released an album called "A World Out of Time" that was compiled in Madagascar. They recorded and played with some of that island country's most gifted musicians. The duo then journeyed to Norway in order to explore additional exotic sounds. The resulting album, titled "The Sweet Sunny North," was released last year.

These projects, both for Shanachie, have whetted Lindley's appetite for more international recording missions.

"In Korea there's a musical form that's sort of like the blues," which he said he'd like to record. "It's old and it's done on really interesting instruments. I also heard this stuff while I was in Japan. It's kind of obscure, but it's the best reggae music in the world!"

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