When Jennifer Batten, Gretchen Menn, and Nili Brosh first discussed the idea of doing a series of electric-guitar instrumental concerts, the trio’s comedic sass almost kept pace with the concert planning. One of the players ignited giggles by suggesting they should call the tour “She 3” to play off of Joe Satriani’s very successful—and predominantly male—G3 tours that showcase phenomenal guitarists.
While it’s endearing when serious artists can manage to not take themselves so seriously, the joking was part of who the trio is (the three possess senses of humor that run from the sardonic to the hilarious), and part the fact these types of guitar events are so rarely launched by women that Batten-Menn-Brosh may have a legitimate claim to being the very first instrumental-music tour presented by three female electric guitarists.
Not that breaking barriers was on anyone’s mind.
Batten-Menn-Brosh was born simply because three friends with a mutual respect for each other and a shared love of complex and challenging guitarcraft wanted to play together.
Of course, the tour could have been conceived as a political statement—a “middle finger” as it were, to the years that a significant number of male guitarists aggressively under-estimated (and in some cases, actively ridiculed) the skills of players who happened to be women. Ultimately, the love of playing guitar transcended the years each of them had to endure lunkhead comments and less-than-generous attitudes. Batten-Menn-Brosh embraced all who adore the guitar. Lucky us.
GoG founder Michael Molenda introduces Jennifer Batten [Photo by Cheryl Munoz]
The premiere Batten-Menn-Brosh show at The Chapel in San Francisco on November 6, 2019—co-produced by us here at Guardians of Guitar—was a thrilling and blissful celebration of stunning technique, masterful composition, inspiring guitar tones, and hellacious musical fun. The audience was 90-percent dudes—it seems that high-wire guitar performance remains a predominantly male enclave—but men and women alike listened raptly, cheered exuberantly, and had their minds collectively blown by the sounds coming from the Chapel’s stage.
For those who weren’t there, let’s dig into those performances a little…
Gretchen Menn Photo by Will Wong
The Gretchen Menn Trio—featuring drummer Tom Perry and bassist Anna Pfeifer—started the evening with Gretchen’s classically influenced rock-jazz explorations. You’d know you were hearing something special even if you were watching her in a YouTube video with the sound muted. Her hands are all over the neck (I almost never see her stick to a conventional “blues box” where the notes stay within a three-fret range), the position of her fingers on the fretboard is almost Segovia precise, and those fingers often stretch out to voice some super-wide chord inversions and melodic leaps. Her tone is typically clear and bell-like with some nice sustain and a dollop of grit, and she uses distortion almost as a dramatic device to punctuate chords and riffs. As a result—and her band totally gets this and knows when to drop the hammer or lay back—her music is richly dynamic. She even played a couple of pretty solo-guitar pieces while sitting on a stool to further showcase the striking diversity of her musical world. Gretchen is one of those players who is always evolving and testing herself, and, as a kind of hometown hero, you could feel the love and respect from the San Francisco fans who have followed her solo work, her recent Abandon All Hope album, and her long-time tenure as guitarist in the internationally touring, all-female Led Zeppelin tribute, Zepparella.
Hear Gretchen at The Chapel [Video courtesy of Michael Powell]
Jennifer Batten Photo by Will Wong
Jennifer Batten has always been one of the most ferociously creative guitarists to walk the earth, so it’s really no surprise that she devised a multimedia presentation to bring something different and exciting to guitar performance. She once told me that her entire show fits into a suitcase—a no-nonsense, cost-effective way to tour around the planet as a solo artist. [Unless, of course, the airline—or fate—futzes with your gear, which happened at the San Francisco show when Jennifer discovered her two volume pedals had ceased working. Happily, Gretchen’s drummer worked some magic with one pedal and a replacement was brought to the venue to take the place of the other volume pedal.] Mobility aside, I’ve always viewed Jennifer’s multimedia experience as a brilliant way to expand the scope of her music with compelling visuals, along with her charisma as a performer. There’s a lot to see and hear. The films provide humorous, compelling, serious, whimsical, thought-provoking, or just plain weird peeks into Jennifer’s view of the planet—or, at least, her take on cinematic story-telling. Her guitar playing is cinematic, as well. Jennifer has a vast armory of gestures to produce unique and surprising sounds (tapping, harmonics, whammy bar, etc.), and she also was the most adventurous player of the night as far as dropping continually morphing guitar tones into the mix. You could see her play 100 times, and still be startled by a sound, lick, riff, or melody you hadn’t heard before. Simply astounding.
Hear Jennifer at The Chapel [Video courtesy of Michael Powell]
Nili Brosh Photo by Will Wong
The trio took pains to ensure that an onslaught of electric guitar didn’t devour anyone’s brains, or send their battered ears running off to only listen to waves lapping against a beach for the next three weeks. Gretchen’s set obviously had a different vibe than Jennifer’s multimedia experience, and Nili was the perfect choice to close the pre-trio-jam section of the show. She is ferocious. Her set was loud—though not piercing or uncomfortable—and she attacks her strings almost as hard as the Hulk crushes skyscrapers when he’s pissed at something. This in no way means that she is a senseless brute. Nili’s technique is masterful, varied, dynamic, and articulate, and she arguably presented the most shredder-rific moments of the evening. Her melodies are singular and evocative—as are those of Jennifer and Gretchen, of course—and her guitar sound was a lovely combination of sustain, saturation, and clarity that conjured wisps of Allan Holdsworth’s singing tone.
Hear Nili at The Chapel [Video courtesy of Michael Powell]
The End of the Night Trio Jam
Left to Right: Gretchen, Jennifer, and Nili at the November 7 Press Day after the Chapel show.
Continuing to avoid a guitar derby of jackhammer proportions, Jennifer, Gretchen, and Nili opted to perform just two songs together—a slow blues and an instrumental cover of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Gretchen’s bassist and drummer supported the trio, and it was pretty amazing that this part of the show was quickly rehearsed at soundcheck just before the venue’s doors opened. Were there rough spots? Sure. Did it matter? Hardly. Jennifer’s playing was colossal during the blues tune—so much so that Gretchen and Nili kind of shrugged in awe and respect, both doing an adorable “bow to the queen.” Ending with the Jackson tune was smart, as the recognizable melody absolutely provided a bit of an ear break before the guitars cut loose and took the crowd home. When the band finished, and as the last bits of guitar ricocheted between the walls, I watched a tall man spread his arms open as if to say, “Is that it?”
He reminded me of that old quote attributed (rightly or wrongly) to P.T. Barnum: “Always leave them wanting more.”
Bravo, Jennifer, Gretchen, and Nili !