When I entered the Nola/Valve Amplification Co. room at T.H.E. show in Newport, a distinctive repeating pattern of delicately plucked notes began playing. As the rhythm line continued on the acoustic guitar, suddenly there was a loud burst: “Wham-whoom-wham, wham-whoom-wham.” It could only be one person: “heavy mental” steel-string genius Michael Hedges.
Indeed, the cut was “Aerial Boundaries,” a four-minute instrumental in which the composer plays with two hands simultaneously — his left hand not only fretting but also strumming and tapping the strings high on the neck, while his right hand finger-picks countermelodies, sharp accents and lighting-quick runs. The 1987 song shocked and awed both listeners and other musicians. It also established the free-spirited, Oklahoma-raised composer as a unique voice on the Windham Hill label, which generally favored mellower performers.
Being a resident of the Sooner State myself, I began to follow Hedges’ career early on and attended many of his mind-blowing live shows. I even did a lengthy magazine interview with him in 1997, several months before he died in a car accident. The memory of those concerts and the genuine connection we formed during our talk made it emotionally difficult to listen to his music for a long while after his passing.
So, when I heard his trademark attack on the guitar emerge from Accent Speaker Technology Ltd.’s Nola Studio Grand Reference Gold speakers ($19,800 a pair) in Newport, I immediately sat down in a center chair.
The Nolas were driven by a system which included VAC’s Signature 200 iQ amplifier ($14,000) and Phi 170 iQ amp ($9,900), VAC’s Renaissance Mk. V line stage ($12,400 with phono) and a discontinued VAC digital converter. The CD transport was an Esoteric K03, turntable was an Acoustic Signature Challenger and cable was Nordost Odin.
Although I hadn’t heard the Hedges tune in some time, it was one I was very familiar with. It was recorded in the living room of the Windham Hill Inn in West Townshend, Vermont, and — on a capable rig or good headphones — contains an almost spooky degree of ambience and reverberation.
The floorstanding Nola speakers, with their unique open-top cabinet design and ribbon tweeter, recreated this atmosphere to a degree I’d rarely heard before. The decays from Hedges’ taps, strums and strikes seemed to hang in the air forever, while the direct sound of each note was clear and focused. There also was an analog-like warmth to the track, which was being played in digital form, that likely was due to the VAC tube gear.
At a time when many show demos focus on the same dozen stereo spectaculars (such as Nils Lofgren’s “Keith Don’t Go,” the hundredth playing of which makes me want to beg the song’s subject to leave as quickly as possible), it was an unexpected treat to hear Hedges’ work showcased. In life, he had few boundaries as he pursued his gift. The Nola/VAC system took me back to those days and rekindled memories of a singular artist who shouldn’t be forgotten. Thanks, guys. Well done.