Guitarist Dan Bankhurst to Play Special Homecoming Show at Nighttown

A Northeast Ohio native, guitarist Dan Bankhurst played around town regularly for most of the 2000s. While he lived here, he had a solid local following and could pack clubs like Nighttown.

But back in January, he picked up and moved to Nashville where he now attends school at Belmont University. He continues to perform there as a solo artist and also plays in a bluegrass ensemble.

“I play as much music here as I can,” he says in a recent phone interview from his Nashville home. “After graduating in May, I hope to go to Europe to play as many shows as I can. I’m studying music business, but I’m really an artist and creator. I can take care of my own booking, but in a year or two I think that will switch over.”

Bankhurst started playing guitar when he was 11 years old; given that his dad played since he was 15 and his older brother started a few years before he did, that wasn’t a strange thing in his household. Inspired by the likes of George Benson, Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt, he delved into jazz as a teenager.

He went to Ohio State to study hospitality management and circulated at the Columbus clubs. During that tie, he heard Chet Atkins for the first time.

“There’s a famous video of him playing ‘Mr. Sandman,’” he explains. “Through him, I found Merle Travis, who also became a big influence on me. When you’re growing up and a guitarist, you hear about Travis Picking. I never knew what it meant. It’s a reference to him. He’s the first guy to become famous with a thumb pick.”

After Bankhurst moved back to Cleveland from Columbus, he discovered Tommy Emmanuel, an Australian thumb-and-finger-style guitarist who's become a YouTube sensation on account of his distinctive style. Bankhurst picked up that style of music.

Turns out, he’s pretty damned good at it. A few years back, he won first place at International Home of the Legends Contest and the top prize was a $3000 Gretsch guitar.

For his debut CD, 2013’s At First Sight, he went to Nashville to record with the late Pete Huttlinger, another finger-style player who’s played Carnegie Hall. Bankhurst showed him some music, and Huttlinger liked it and said he wanted to record the album at his studio that's known for its vintage gear. The disc features 10 original tunes that show off his incredible guitar skills. It also includes a few covers too, most notably a new arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" for which Bankhurst makes his guitar sound like a cello. Though inspired by the guitar work of Phish's Trey Anastasio, Bankhurst embraces a wide range of musical styles on the instrumental album.

“I had a lot of original ideas for that album and so I went to Nashville to record with Pete Huttlinger,” says Bankhurst. “We recorded it as his house, and it was a great experience.”

Back in 2014, Bankhurst started working on a follow-up, Tradition Pickin’. He recorded locally with producer and musician Brian Straw at his Survival Kit Studios. A song like “Travis Train” features some twangy guitar work and includes a rather complex bridge that allows Bankhurst to show off his deft fingerstyle guitar abilities.

“I wanted to pay homage and take my hat off to some of the old players,” says Bankhurst when asked about the album. "So many of their songs influenced me. I knew them so well, and it was some of the best stuff I was playing at that point. They were still original in terms of my take on them. The album had a bluesy feel on a lot of it. I had ideas for new arrangements. I think that’s a big thing in this small community. You can play the tunes, but you need to try to make them your own. It’s understood that it’s okay to do that. It felt right to honor the musicians that carved the path I’m on.”

That album features acoustic solo guitar though there are two tracks that feature [local bassist] Kevin Johnson and Danny Jenkins from the [local alt-country act] Speedbumps. Adam Boose did the mastering at his locally based Cauliflower Audio, and the music was recorded over a period of six months. Bankhurst produced the album himself.

“It was more difficult and a little more stressful,” he says of doing the production himself. “I had to dictate everything. I told Brian [Straw] when I didn’t like how something sounded. I would move a mic or add more bass. It was hard because I was working with one set of ears. I would ask [Brian] for advice, but I was the one who made the call. It was a great learning experience, and we enjoyed doing it.”

Billed as Dan Bankhurst and Friends, the upcoming Nighttown show represents Bankhurst’s first performance in Cleveland this year.

“The show will be different, and people will be surprised,” he says. “I’ll be singing this time and digging back into my deeper roots. I grew up liking James Taylor and Eric Clapton and ’70s music. I also like Hendrix and blues players like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King. Ray Charles is a big influence too. I’ll do some cover tunes from that era. I’ve also never played electric guitar at a Nighttown show. I’ll come out for a few finger style tunes and then the band will join me for acoustic songs and we’ll do an electric set. We’ll have some cool grooving stuff — a mix of blues, jazz and funk. I’ll do some bluegrass tunes too. Stylistically, it will be all over the place. It’ll be fun.”

Dan Bankhurst & Friends, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 17, Nighttown, 12387 Cedar Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-795-0550. Tickets: $20,