Tinsley Ellis // Photos courtesy of Glenn Phillips, Tinsley Ellis & AJ Ghent

It’s 1929, late evening, in a city where the rivers meet and the mountains begin. Downtown, an incandescent marquee is mirroring its glow against the faces of passersby. The radiant light embraces attendees retrieving their tickets at the booth. 

A majestic French mirrored entrance reflects an intoxication in its patrons that only regality can convey, as anticipation steps slowly down the center of a resplendent red ribbon atop checkered black and white tiles. Elated attendees approach the gold-accented double doors, which swing open in grandiose fashion, offering an eloquent view of the heart of the brand-new Desoto Theatre. 

Fast forward 85 years; the entrance is just as grand, and the heart, even bigger.

The Historic Desoto Theatre Foundation (HDTF), along with dedicated members of the Roman community, work ardently every day on the restoration and preservation of this historic landmark so that history can continue to be made. Come November, that heart – that central stage that has stimulated so many senses over the years – will be pulsing an electric energy that is sure to make Georgia guitar history.

"Every time I’m on stage is an intimate moment with my guitar"

It is our honor to introduce The Georgia Guitar Explosion, the HDTF’s 3rd Annual Music Festival. On Nov. 8th, the 498 seats inside the Desoto will more than likely be completely empty, but only because patrons will be on their feet and fully charged by the music.

The AJ Ghent Band, the Glenn Phillips Band and Tinsley Ellis (in that order) will be sharing some of the finest fret work Georgia has to offer. Curated jointly by Ellis and Matt Davis of 95.7 The Ridge, this is so much more than just another concert.

Very few things in this world can convey weeping elegance, humanizing rhythm or raw emotion the way an electric guitar can. This event is all about the celebration of the instrument – a tribute to the guitar.

Let’s start at the neck; the beginning if you will. The celebration will begin with The AJ Ghent Band, a sharp dressed six-man ensemble that radiates an elegance that is all “Southern soul.” Their eclectic sound fuses the blues, soul, southern rock, and funk into an energy that demands and well-deserves an audience in motion. Frontman AJ Ghent soulfully slides the length of his red custom eight-string lap steel guitar in a standing position that only echoes the energy radiated by the dancing harmonies of his front-line ladies, sister Tiffany Ghent Belle and wife MarLa Ghent, and the funky rock infused rhythms rising up from the back line: Gary Paulo on sax and rhythm guitar, Seth Watters on bass, and Will Groth on the drums. 

Carried by the record label of Georgia-grown Grammy winner Zac Brown, Southern Ground Artists, Inc., the AJ Ghent Band formed in 2012, and already their dance card is filling fast. So, take this opportunity to see them in an intimate venue while you can.

Prepare to go from dancing to gawking as the Glenn Phillips Band takes the stage by a storm that only an electric guitar could spin. Phillips weaves a wailing composition of epic emotion, needing no lyrical accompaniment. He lets the guitar do the singing – cranking out sensational ballads that stretch the imagination just as intensely as his facial muscles are pulling and contracting at the changing pitch of his instrument. Phillips first picked up a guitar at the age of 16 and has yet to put it down. His lifelong music career kicked off with the Hampton Grease Band in 1967; he has 12 critically acclaimed albums released under his own name; and, over the years, has played with some of the greats (The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix and others). Phillips is no stranger to Rome; in fact, it is one of his favorite places to play. He attributes much of his support over the years to the people of Rome, with a special shout out to John Schroeder of Schroeder’s New Deli on Broad Street, for keeping the music alive.

Following Phillips is legendary Atlanta-born bluesman Tinsley Ellis. With eyes sometimes shut tight and a leg tap to keep the beat, Ellis unleashes a pain and a pleasure all too intense to be anything but the blues. Don’t let his calm stance fool you, the music is raw emotion. Ellis has been cranking out albums since the 80s and he’s had the privilege of releasing the last two, “Get It!” (2013) and “Midnight Blue” (2014), under his own label, Heartfixer Music. Throughout his career, Ellis has toured the country and beyond, sharing the stage with amazing artists like Buddy Guy, The Allman Brothers, Widespread Panic and Gov’t Mule. Like Phillips, Ellis is definitely no stranger to Rome. 

“I am very excited to be coming back to Rome. I have been playing in Rome for 35 years, all the way back to Alley Cats and Heartfixers shows at Shannon’s [a live music club in Rome in the 70s and 80s],” Ellis says.

AJ Ghent

Phillips and Ellis both consider Rome to be a place where the people feel like family. With a touch of warmth, Phillips says, “Rome is a place that I feel very lucky to play. It’s an area that throughout my history as a musician has supported me and helped me through.”

The common thread, Davis says, is not only their Georgian ties, but mainly, their passion for playing, perfecting and pushing the limits of the guitar.

Moments etched in memory, accented by influential pioneers of sound, have inspired the growth these musicians have experienced; moving them to their celebrated status as guitarists. Like any fantastical feat, it all began somewhere. 

For Ellis, it was a B.B. King show at the age of 14 where B.B. broke a string, changed it without missing a beat, and passed the broken string to Ellis (who of course still has it). A fate sewn up by a string.

 Phillips, around his 16th birthday, merely had to pick up his older brother’s guitar to know what was in store for him. A transformational moment, he says, “I just hit the strings, open, with my hand and they made this sound and vibration.” I can hear the reminiscence in his voice when he explains, “When I did that, my head was flooded with sounds and I just had this clear thing go through my head … ’This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’”

And for Ghent, it was in his blood. Preceded by ancestral masters of the steel guitar, his forefathers and great uncle, Ghent knew he was meant to play. It didn’t come easy at first, but he trained and taught himself until he reached, not just excellence, but his own unique style and stance. “Every time I’m on stage is an intimate moment with my guitar,” Ghent says. 

These musicians will be showcasing and celebrating their love for all things guitar, but they also bring with them a great respect for each other. Ellis calls Phillips “a Georgia musical institution” and refers to Ghent’s guitar playing as “jaw dropping.” 

“I love being able to connect with other musicians.” Phillips says. “To me, it’s all connected to what music was originally about when I started playing, and I love being a part of and preserving that in any way possible.” 

This event is the third in a series of HDTF Annual Music Festivals that keep the Desoto moving at full steam into the future – a future that, according to HDTF President Chris Jackson, is only getting wider and brighter. The first festival, he says, was actually headlined by Ellis, followed the second year by a two-day event including The Tams and the Pub & Grub Crawl. 

“The cool part about this is that we get to show people what a great place downtown Rome is, not only for eating but also lending an ear to some great live music,” Jackson says. “We want people to know that the Desoto is a premier venue to do that, and to do it in style.”

While he knows that numerous Romans will be roused to attend, Davis hopes that the “Explosion” will reach and lure folks from the Chattanooga and Birmingham areas as well. Tickets can be purchased at the Desoto Theatre website,
www.desototheatre.com
, as well as the box office and through venuedog.com. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 8th; show time is 7:30 p.m. Concessions and adult beverages will be available for purchase throughout the night. After all, it is a celebration – one that will conclude with a jam session that is sure to make a monolithic mark in the memory of the Roman music scene as Ellis invites Phillips and Ghent back on stage for a collaboration that, quite possibly, may never be witnessed again. 

When the smoke from this explosion clears, Davis and Jackson are sure that jaws will be on the floor and minds will be blown. I believe it was Hans Christian Andersen who said, “Where words fail, music speaks,” and we hope that after these musicians have taken the stage, all will be speechless. 

In 1929, when the Desoto was new, it was often called “the jewel of Broad Street.” “There was nothing like it,” Jackson says, “… and still, we step back in time.” 

All are invited to take a walk through that beautifully preserved Art-Deco entrance, back in time, if only for a moment, before witnessing, in 2014,  what will be one of the most memorable nights in Georgia guitar history.