Asked about the health of the Washington music scene, local guitarist Michael Andre' Fath of Vienna fires back, "Is there a scene?
"Washington is a political town with a lot of transients and that doesn't help," says Fath, who until recently played what he calls "heavy commercial rock" with the local band Orphan.
"Rock really is better supported in blue-collar towns like Baltimore or Pittsburgh," he says. "And getting a record deal is hard no matter where you are playing. It's not based on talent so much as positioning and how much money you've got behind you. These days a really talented band simply isn't going to get signed while playing in a club someplace, especially in Washington, where there isn't much of a club scene anyway."
All of which helps to explain why Fath, 32, recently decided to go out on his own and cut his first solo album, "Profile" on Platinum Records. The recording reflects his twin loves: electric rock guitar and classical music.
"I wanted to demonstrate the range of music I'm interested in," he says. The album's 12 selections, performed on acoustic and electric guitars, include a couple of progressive rock pieces that reflect Fath's childhood training in classical music, his first classical composition, a mixture of Baroque, Renaissance and Spanish pieces, and the original tune "Flamenca Electrica," inspired by Washington flamenco guitarist (and Fath's former teacher) Carlos Ramos.
All told, the music seems to owe as much to the progressive rock tradition as to classical guitarists Julian Bream and Christopher Parkening.
"It's kind of my re'sume'," Fath says of the album. "I've been playing electric guitar for 18 years now, but I've always loved classical music, having studied it as a kid. I've been studying classical guitar for the last five years and I wanted to create this fusion of rock and classical music, just as guitarists like Allan Holdsworth and Al DiMeola have done with rock and jazz."
Some of the pieces on "Profile," such as "Symphony for Edouard," which features eight layers of guitar at one point, are heavily textured and reminiscent of Brian May's work with Queen. Fath has learned to cope with the comparison.
"May really brought what I call guitar orchestrations to the forefront," he says. "Of course, I've listened to him. He was a ground breaker and I certainly don't mind the comparison. But my music is more influenced by string quartets than any one guitarist.
"Actually, a lot of European rock guitarists have this background in classical music that shines through every now and then. I guess I owe as much to Richie Blackmore as anybody. He was the first to start using the minor harmonic scale a lot."
If all the guitarists Fath admires have one thing in common, it seems to be exceptional technique. That's not something you'll find lacking on "Profile," either.
"Sometimes technique can get in the way," Fath admits, "but I look at it this way. I love blues guitar but I also love listening to violinists, too, who are just blazing. Both kinds of music make sense. You've just got to understand and appreciate the difference."
Fath concedes that the music he's making may be bucking the trend. He acknowledges that many of the British rock guitarists who influenced him are no longer as popular as they once were and that there's little chance of "Profile" receiving much air play, since, as Fath says, "what they play on pop radio is so restricted."
Still, Fath believes the kind of success Al DiMeola has enjoyed recently bodes well for the future. "DiMeola doesn't get a lot of air play, either," he says. "But he still sells records because of his virtuosity. There's a lot of guitarists and just plain guitar fans out there who will buy his albums for that reason alone. I'm banking a little on that myself. When you consider how large the rock audience is, if I can attract just a small percentage of it with this kind of classical-rock fusion, then I'd be more than happy."
Fath plans to cut another album next month, this time with a rhythm section so he can perform the music live. Eventually, though, he envisions writing a concerto for electric guitar and performing it with an orchestra.
"It's tough," he says, "but I think I have as good a shot at it as anyone. If there's room in this world for DiMeola, Holdsworth and John McLaughlin, who knows? Maybe there's room for my music, too."