By Gary Heil
Cloutier really is a one-man orchestra. On a recent trip to the "Contented
Cow" in Northfield, I thought, "They've got a group playing here
tonight." As I wormed my way toward the front, I didn't see a
group at all. What I heard were the sounds of a couple of guitars,
bass and some sort of flute. Seated on a stool, sat a curly haired
guy with a guitar. One guy. But the sounds were full and lush.
It certainly wasn't karaoke because he was doing all the music
himself, at the same time. No CDs in the background, no tapes.
He uses some electronic toys called "looping devices," which immediately
play back, or at the push of a button, whatever he plays. He can
add layer upon layer of instruments by way of a guitar synthesizer.
Way cool. People strained to see what he was doing. But it was
difficult to see the action because the electronics are a couple
of pedal boards on the floor.
His music has the power to mesmerize, as his hands fly over the
fingerboard, and produce different but incredible sounds. Steve
worked through some of his own beautiful compositions, then through
some jazz standards and a few tunes that are not easily nitched
into a category. He then sang a couple more of his own bluesy
pieces. Steve's been playing gigs since his high school days in
the late 60s. After more than three decades of playing, he's got
the guitar pretty well figured out. His newest CD release, titled
"Curious House," contains 16 of his own songs. The song "Japanese
Garden" from his current CD sounds like what you might picture
a Japanese garden to sound like if could be turned into music.
It's performed with the looping device, so that the song progresses
with more and more sounds and nuances. It's sort of like butterflies
stirring in the breeze.
You really can hear more when you close your eyes. Your eyes tell
you he can't possibly be doing all of this. Your ears tell you
that he is indeed creating all of these sounds. He has his own
CD label, "Raspberry Hill," and a couple other previous releases
"Tin Cup" and "Poems of the Hobo Road."
The guitars he plays onstage are his own creations. He's not currently
building guitars at, but may resume in the future. I looked over
three of his guitars. They were of the highest quality, beautiful
sounding, rare tonewoods and easy to play. His guitars range in
colors from sunburst yellow and brown, to red and almost orange,
cedar and spruce tops with various colors in the stain. His jazz
model is a beautiful red sunburst, and is a little smaller than
the normal 16- or 17-inch body width.
Steve has made more than 50 guitars. All but one are flattop acoustics.
One guitar has a synthesizer built into it so it's capable of
sounding like an Indian flute, cello or any instrument played
or not yet invented. Another is an archtop, "F" hole, jazz model.
His guitars standout from others partly because their fingerboards
are more like classical guitars-flat, not curved. The interior
bracing is lighter, which allows for the use of lighter, easier-to-play
strings. They're not made for the heavy-handed player. The light
bracing also allows for greater sustain and makes it easier to
coax subtle sounds from them.
Some professional musicians I know use Steve's guitars, including
Pete Bloedel of Mankato, Bill McGrath of "Bonnie and the Clydes,"
Russell Letson (a writer for Fingerstyle Guitar) and Brian Bowen
(a member of the Grassroots Concerts.) They all say they are the
best guitars they have ever owned or played.
It was a relaxing, fun night, listening to the magic of Steve
Cloutier. Steve plays in southern Minnesota cities as well as
the Twin Cities. If you'd like to find out more about this amazing
musician, check out his web site at www.cloutier.org.
Gary Heil is a musician living in Northfield.