By Elizabeth Carbe and Jean-Pierre Durand
Anaheim, CA (The Hollywood Times) 1/31/19 – The company, under new oversight, cites a “return to our roots” approach in rebuilding, then celebrates with an Anaheim rock and roll blow out.
The first thing I noticed when entering the Gibson room at NAMM was they finally had a room again! Recent well-documented problems with past management at Gibson had, amongst other problems, greatly reduced the venerable company’s visibility at NAMM over the last few years.
The SECOND thing I noticed (besides a stunning amount of beautiful guitars) was how they had set up their promotional giveaways. There were five stations set up around the room demonstrating how they make their guitars. Each station had a luthier/crafstman to demonstrate to attendees how each component of the guitar is made. They gave each person a ticket upon entering the room. If an attendee went to all five stations, the station craftsman would stamp the ticket, and the attendee would be given a chance to win a Gibson guitar. It was a clever way to entice people to discuss the process with the craftsman, as well as signal a return to the basics of hands-on guitar making and quality building.
As someone who has reluctantly followed the decline in quality of Gibson over the past ten years, this craft angle certainly caught my attention. Musicians buying Gibson guitars in the last few years found them to have an array of problems: improper fret dressing, tuning issues, and even warped necks. The craftsmanship and overall quality had not been good!
Additionally, due to the stewardship at the top, in 2010 Gibson was deemed one of the worst companies in the USA for whom to work . They had filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy and were restructuring when finally last year KKR, the new owners of Gibson, decided to move forward with Curleigh and a new management team at the helm.
Thus, seeing that Gibson was encouraging people to take a short tour of their building process gave me a positive feeling on this changing of the guard. I took the tour and asked many questions, not only about the construction but also about the new regime. From the Gibson workers, I got an overwhelming thumbs up and an unspoken feeling of relief for this iconic brand and hope for a return to excellence.
Later on Thursday evening, I attended the Gibson party hosted at the City National Grove of Anaheim. Master of ceremonies Jeff Garlin came on to get us excited about the upcoming concert. He then introduced the new CEO, JC Curleigh, who joined Gibson in October of 2018 and who had previously been the successful CEO of Levi Strauss. He took the stage in a very relaxed yet confident manner. He had the look of someone that fit into the music community. I thought this was a good thing. He told the audience that Gibson’s old paradigm was to produce a certain amount of guitars every month, and that the new way of doing business was to be quality over quantity. He wanted to bring back the golden age of the Gibson guitar and restore the quality and craftsmanship for which it used to be known. He addressed head-on the well-documented problems that the company had been going through for the last decade or so. He didn’t try to equivocate or deflect. He let us know that he and his team were aware of Gibson’s current reputation, acknowledged the problems, and was straightforward about the plan to fix them. It was refreshing to hear Curleigh speak so candidly about the past and the future. For many of us that had been hoping for such a rebirth, it was great and welcome news.
After that introduction, the music started. The house band consisted of guitarist/bandleader Jimmy Vivino (Conan O’Brien), bassist Daryl Jones (Rolling Stones, Sting), keyboard man Jeff Young (Steely Dan, Jackson Browne), and drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Cougar Mellencamp, Smashing Pumpkins, and so many more). Young up-and-comers graced the stage first. Young phenom Toby Lee was first, killing it from the get-go on his Gibson Firebird. Similar heartfelt and intense performances came next, from the dark and compelling Austin Texas blues of Emily Wolfe to the rocking good time provided by Jared James Nichols (on his genuinely simple and beautiful Epiphone “Old Glory” Les Paul Custom – one P90 rocking hard!!). Songwriter Cam, who has placed songs most recently with English phenom Sam Smith, played one of those finely-tuned gems, a song called “Palace”. A group of additional young lions followed, all relishing in the glory of loud guitars and amps, and lifting the proceedings to the next level.
Star power made its way to the stage when original Doors guitarist Robby Krieger came on, with friends and guest guitarists in tow (including keyboardist extraordinaire Ed Roth). At 73, he performed wonderfully, rocking through “Roadhouse Blues” and more. Nancy Wilson of Heart then took the stage with a Gibson J-45 acoustic to run through Wings “Let Me Roll It”, singing the hell out of the song. Then she strapped on a Gibson Nighthawk as she was joined onstage by Jared James Nichols for a truly rousing and unexpected take on Robin Trower’s “Day of the Eagle”.
Then Peter Frampton took over for a half-hour of guitar and tone mastery. Highlights included a moving and rousing instrumental version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”, a tune he recorded several years ago and which took on added poignance at this event in the wake of Chris Cornell’s untimely passing – it definitely moved the crowd. When he ended with a long “Do You Feel Like I Do” (punctuated with some hilariously self-deprecating comments during the talk box section), the crowd was pumped.
Billy Gibbons finished the evening off, first just as a quartet with the Texas chestnut “Thunderbird” – he even threw Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” into the mix. But he ended with a big jam featuring many of the evening’s players, bringing the boogie with a giant closing jam on the ZZ Top classic “La Grange”. They brought the house down! It was a truly memorable night in Anaheim.
If Gibson, with the help of JC Curleigh and the new management, is able to implement the changes discussed that night and keep up the transparency and quality control they committed to at NAMM, they are on their way back to producing instruments that musicians can again be proud to play.