Spotlight on Peter Rowan: Featured guitarist feels Centrum, class is ‘right choice’

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — Peter Rowan wasn’t sure about participating in Fiddle Tunes, but now feels he made the right choice.

“I like the sense of fun that everyone has here,” he said Tuesday after teaching a guitar class.

“When I first heard about this, I thought that it may have been a little too fanatic, full of people who are dedicated to one thing and frozen in time, but [festival director] Suzy [Thompson] said I would have a good time, and I trusted her.”

Rowan, 71, has never dedicated himself to just one thing.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, he was charmed by the sound of country and bluegrass music on the radio as a child and soon picked up a guitar with his family’s encouragement.

He played at record shops with an early stage rock band, The Cupids, with three guitars, piano and drums in a format inspired by Buddy Holly. On a parallel track, he followed the bluegrass muse, ending up as a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the mid-1960s.

He met up with mandolinist Dave Grisman and formed the band Earth Opera, active during the psychedelic years, during which time the band opened for their label mates, The Doors.

“We were in over our heads,” he said of the time. “I was playing with Grisman, and the record company said we should have a bass and drums, so it was a hybrid sound.

“[Doors singer] Jim [Morrison] was a lot of fun. He already was an epic, epic figure, a lot of eye contact, but he had a job to do.

“It was pretty crazy. We went with the energy. There was a lot of body movement and hair flowing.”

Rowan said the crowds were there for The Doors but were open-minded.

“The audience was restless, very exited and welcoming,” he said.

Rowan then joined Seatrain, which was formed with members of the Blues Project.

Rowan made two albums with Seatrain, both under the auspices of Beatles producer George Martin.

“The music changed completely,” he said. “The Beatles were the kids, and the record company was the adults and telling the Beatles they couldn’t do what they wanted to do, and George was in the middle of all that.

“I liked the rough mixes that George did for us before everyone in the band started tinkering with them. We had 16 tracks and 16 hands on the dials; it was compromised.

“I would like to have let George do his magic.”

Rowan said he tried once to reunite the surviving members of Seatrain, “but no one in that band liked playing with the others.

“Seatrain was a tight little band that was trying too hard to win people over,” he said.

He then formed Old and in the Way with Grisman and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, which carried on the bluegrass tradition of long solos and an unstructured atmosphere.

“Everyone was willing to take solos,” he said of that band. “It was the sound of freedom, and it was inventive and fun.

“It was like how people would play in pizza parlors. There would be verse and a chorus and a solo over and over. It was how you got 40 minutes of music out of just a few songs.”

Rowan said he isn’t used to teaching guitar and had some nervousness about the possibility but has enjoyed the experience so far.

A new album, “The Dharma Blues,” is in the wings, otherwise there are no firm plans.

“There is nothing specific that I want to do next,” he said.

“I’ve always wanted to do everything, so I’ll just want to keep that up.

“I’ve always wanted to enjoy myself rather than having a career trajectory, in the years I have left I want to keep doing what I’m doing until I physically can’t do it anymore.”

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Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 03. 2014 6:07PM
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