The Red Guitar is, essentially, the story of John Sheldon’s life. John Sheldon has lived quite a life. And it just so happens to mirror the development of rock music over the latter course of the last century. The stories merge into one another, and are told with real grace and charm. If you’re at all into rock, country or the blues, then this is the show for you.
If you’re at all into rock, country or the blues, then this is the show for you.
Sheldon talks of singing folk songs at summer camp, how learning those folk riffs naturally lead on to learning country ones, how this leads to his love for blues music, how that leads him on to… You get the idea. By the time he’s in angry middle-adolescence, Sheldon has (perhaps not entirely coincidentally) discovered rock music, electric guitars, amplifiers, and all the rest. He candidly describes the highs and lows of his youth, providing moments which are, in turn, both witty and genuinely moving.
The main attraction here is undoubtedly Sheldon’s guitar playing. It’s brilliant. The natural and gentle way he picks out notes or fiddles with dials means you can’t help but be put at ease. It’s one thing seeing this kind of playing at a large-scale gig; it’s quite another seeing it ten feet away. Two moments in particular stand out. First, Sheldon’s description of how he became obsessed with Green Onions by Booker T and the MG’s, and ended up writing a letter to the lead guitarist (“He wrote back!”). Second, his tale of stumbling across Jimi Hendrix warming up in a studio room. Sheldon imitates Hendrix’s routine, whilst deconstructing all the different musical traditions Hendrix is mashing up and putting to work for his own purposes. He seems to really get lost in the music here, and for good reason.
Sometimes Sheldon’s narrative overreaches itself. There are a few lines which strive a bit too hard for profundity and fall short (“Even a dream can have balls, if the dream is real”). There’s also an extended sequence in which Sheldon acts out a conversation with the Muse, who offers him inspiration for a song he’s writing. It’s a frustrating section because what Sheldon is actually describing – the process through which he developed a tune for his song – is really fascinating. The notes, Sheldon points out, are constantly climbing upwards, striving for a position of clarity and peace, before inevitably falling down and beginning the process all over. Sheldon’s playing here is truly lovely, and the Muse interlude just proves to be a distraction. It’s as if Sheldon feels the need to include a theatrical device simply to keep the audience engaged. He shouldn’t; he should have faith in the music. After all, it’s rock and roll.