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Acoustic Alchemy Mixes Up a Potpourri of Music

When English guitarists Nick Webb and Greg Carmichael, who compose the instrumental group Acoustic Alchemy, came to the United States two years ago to shop for a record deal, they paid for their trip by playing their way over.

On a plane.

“We couldn’t afford to take a month off, so we got a job playing on Virgin Airlines, which is owned by Richard Branson, who also owns Virgin Records,” said Webb, 34. “Virgin has a great selection of in-flight entertainment, with videos and music, and during the winter, the flights feature acoustic musicians. We auditioned and got the job. We’d play 10 minutes every hour, strolling through the different sections of the jumbo jet. People loved it.”

The pair found an equally warm reception with American record labels. They received several offers, eventually signing with Tony Brown, the creative mind behind the MCA Master Series, an acoustic non-country label based in Nashville that has recorded such diverse artists as jazz/fusion guitarist Larry Carlton and bass wizard Edgar Meyer.

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“Tony’s offer was the most interesting, in that he gave us complete artistic freedom to make any record we want to,” Webb said from London, just before leaving for the group’s first American tour. Acoustic Alchemy plays the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano tonight and the Catalina Jazz Festival in Avalon on Saturday.

Webb made the recording process sound simple. “Money is sent to us in Europe and we record whatever we want,” he said. “The only condition is that the recording has to be of high audio quality.”

The group’s two releases, 1987’s “Red Dust and Spanish Last” and the follow-up “Natural Elements,” released last February, have together sold about 150,000 copies, more than either Webb, Brown or executives at MCA Jazz, which distributes the Master Series, anticipated.

“We’ve surprised them because we’ve outsold everybody on the Master Series but Larry Carlton,” Webb said. “ ‘Natural Elements’ is still selling several thousand copies a week, and the first one is selling after being out 18 months. The thing about this kind of music is that if you get it right, it seems to sort of go on forever with the sales.”

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Though the group, which records and tours with two synthesizers, bass and drums in addition to the leaders--"That’s the ‘alchemy’ part of it, if you like"--plays pieces that have some of the light, filmy background-ish quality that characterizes New Age music, Webb doesn’t think of Acoustic Alchemy as a New Age band.

“We’re an instrumental music band of a wide variety of styles, and we’ve been marketed as New Age,” Webb said. “I don’t mind that if it helps us reach an audience, though we don’t have a lot in common with a lot of the New Age things. Our influences are jazz, European classical music, flamenco, as well as Latin and African rhythms and such. So it’s more your world music, if you like, translated onto the guitar.”

Webb thinks that his and Carmichael’s writing style accounts for much of the group’s success. “We tend to write melodically, rather than indulge in longer structures,” he said. “We employ the song format more than anything else, which is a key to why we’re having so much radio play.” Such stations as KTWV (“The Wave”) have been giving Acoustic Alchemy exposure, and the group’s LPs have placed highly on charts in both Billboard and Radio and Records magazines. Also the band’s first video, “Casino,” has been airing on VH-1.

Born in Manchester, England, Webb’s first professional activity was as an acoustic folk artist, “doing James Taylor and Paul Simon numbers.” But after four years at Leeds College of Music, Webb had the skills to form Acoustic Alchemy. The group began five years ago, and the London-born Carmichael, 33, who has a classical background and has played with flamenco and reggae groups, replaced original member Simon James in 1985.

The guitarists possess distinctive conceptual viewpoints. “I’m less of a jazzer than Greg,” Webb said. “He’s such a mixture of styles, he tends to phrase in a slightly more be-bop vein, while I’m phrasing more like rock. I improvise on the steel-stringed guitar, using the pick, he plays the nylon-string guitar, playing without the pick.”

Webb thinks that today’s music climate is ideal for a band like Acoustic Alchemy.

“People are much more open-eared these days to different styles,” Webb said. “People used to be into just one style, be it jazz or country or whatever; there was never any spillage between them. Now you can do what you want.”

Acoustic Alchemy plays at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $16.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.

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