Making Noise: Chris O'Neill moves state of the art forward

By Steve Durgin
Contributing Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009

Take one part jazz, one part fusion, one part funk and one part pop music. Put them all in a very large mixing bowl. Now turn on the switch and watch. Chances are darn good you will see Chris O'Neill climb out with a guitar in his hand.

Over the last decade or more O'Neill has been one of the most significant musicians on the Portsmouth area music scene. He is probably best known for his Amorphous band which has had a number of Market Square Day appearances in recent years as well as frequent performances at local venues including the Barley Pub in Dover and the Press Room in Portsmouth. The pop/fusiony Amorphous recently wrapped up a regular Wednesday night gig at the Muddy River Smoke House in Portsmouth since January.

As the name implies (amorphous: a nondeterminant state), this band has assumed many forms in terms of music style and members over the years. The only thing consistent about this band is that it is always good.

Amorphous has featured a number of very good instrumentalists and vocalists including keyboardists Mike Effenberger and Eric Donnelley as well as drummers Mike Walsh, PJ Donahue and George Laliotis (who is also an extraordinary vocalist). The excellent (and sometimes very high volume) bassist Keith Foley has been a consistent member over the years. Cindy Kaza, the spunky, talented and flamboyantly attired vocalist who fronted the band for a few years, left the band about two years ago for Nashville. George Laiotis has been doing some vocals recently.

O'Neill came to the Seacoast from Hollis in 1988 to enroll at the University of New Hampshire as an English major. After graduating he became and continues to be a full-time musician.

In addition to his band and duo playing abilities (He also performs as a duo with singer Gina Alibrio), O'Neill is an extraordinary solo guitarist. "I don't mind sitting around in a restaurant or a function and playing solo guitar for people if it makes the atmosphere better. It is like a nice fountain or nice picture on the wall," says O'Neill.

On the evening I spoke with O'Neill, he handed me a sample of his solo guitar CD. "Truth Is..."

To understand the significance of "Truth is ..." you have to wind the time clock back a few decades.

In the earlier 1960s, futurist Buckminister Fuller (known more for creative thinking rather than rigorous calculating) smashed through existing design paradigms of structural engineering to create the geodesic dome. This was achieved by a holistic consideration of three dimensional geometry, material science and stress analysis. In doing so he established a new vanguard of structural design. Not long after, auto manufactures rolled out unitized construction (the entire car body is the frame) forever yanking human societies structural infrastructure destiny out of the sole hands of the 200 amp stick welding Ibeamocrates (structural designers that used big I beams).

As Fuller moved the science of structural design forward by a holistic understanding and utilization of all available elements, so too have guitarists such Alex DeGrassi, Stanley Jordan, Adrian Legg and the late Michael Hedges on the international level.

In the Seacoast region guitarists Ed Gerhard and Randy Armstrong moved the state of the guitar art forward by holistic consideration, development and utilization of the primary elements of western-style guitar music.

The elements are: bass lines, rhythm chords, improvisational chords, single note lines, harmonics, pull offs, hammer ons, and percussive effects (slapping or tapping on string tops or body of guitar).

These players forsake pop culture celebrity and the quest of fortune to understand and develop the full potential of the guitar as the basis of composition and music creation (keep in mind not all the players mentioned necessarily use all the elements mentioned).

With his CD "Truth Is..." O'Neill has placed his footprints on the consecrated turf of the mostly elite group of six-string swamis mentioned above, and in doing so has made a very significant contribution to the world of guitar centric composition and guitar playing.

On this CD, O'Neill has written excellent compositions in which he uses the bass line element in conjunction with firm rhythm chording to create powerful foundational rhythm grooves (groove: the ambient chordal and rhythm theme of a composition) very effectively. He also integrates very clean and compositionally relevant single note lines with improvisational chordal passages all while conveying a feeling of having complete command of his instrument. O'Niell uses harmonics well (touching the string with a fret board finger rather than depressing it against the fret) and the recording sound quality of this CD is excellent.

I believe "Truth Is ..." is a must-have CD for any guitarist and any listener that is seeking out high level creative composing and playing from a musician that mines his compositional inspiration and playing techniques directly from the riches that lie within his instrument.

O'Neill made a recent radio appearance on WSCA's "Seacoast Jazzfusion" where listeners got to hear tunes from this extraordinary CD.

The Amorphous band has won awards from Jam Magazine, the Portland Phoenix and the won the Portsmouth Herald's Spotlight music awards the last four years in a row (2004-07) as voted by the fans.

O'Neill, also a bit of a social philosopher, this evening had this final thought:

"If you just lost a lot of money in the stock market you can still come out and see some live music."

Indeed words of wisdom and consolation. Chris thanks for cheering us up!

Upcoming gigs:

Amorphous Band

— 4/18, The Dolphin Striker, Portsmouth, 9:30 p.m.


— 4/2, The Pasta Loft, Milford, 8 p.m., Chris O'Neill/Joe Birch

— 4/16, The Three Chimneys Inn, Durham, 6 p.m., Chris O'Neill/Gina Alibrio

— 4/23, The Music Hall, Portsmouth, 5 p.m. Chris O'Neill/Keith Foley

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(Steve Durgin plays jazz and classical guitar, broadcasts jazz-fusion programming Thursday afternoons from 3-5 p.m. on WSCA LP, 106.1 FM. Steve can be reached at: