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Neil Jacobs

Spins on Music

Veteran music critic and entertainment writer John Sinkevics comments on the local and national music scene at his Spins on Music website at localspins.com, and spotlights artists at 10 a.m. Wednesdays on Local Spins Live on News Talk 1340 AM (WJRW) in Grand Rapids.

Grand Haven guitarist Neil Jacobs has established an international reputation for his 12-string prowess, embracing gypsy and world music influences.

Neil Jacobs has traveled extensively in Eastern Europe; on Wednesday, he took a much shorter trip to downtown Grand Rapids for Local Spins Live.


As Neil Jacobs puts it, “I locked myself in my room for 20 years getting good.”

When it comes to 12-string acoustic guitar prowess, Jacobs is about as good as it gets.

That’s evident in the award-winning, self-taught musician’s six acclaimed studio albums, an international following cultivated by years on the road exploring and performing music from Russia to the Balkans to Spain (not to mention crisscrossing the United States), and in the passion he displays for diverse stylings that draw from gypsy, world music, jazz, folk and eye-popping fingerstyle traditions.

A native of Ohio who’s lived across the globe and currently makes his home in Grand Haven, Jacobs may not be a household name in West Michigan, but his instrumental prowess has gotten deserved attention over the years from the American Independent Music Awards, the Columbus Music Awards, “Good Morning America,” the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Nashville’s JPF Music Awards and more.

Jacobs even won over millions of new fans by performing on an Eastern bloc “cowboy show” TV special in the mid-1980s.

He’s been described by various media outlets as a “modern virtuoso” (Eric Paul Review) who plays “Russian cowboy music” (Cleveland Sun Messenger) and an “exotic hybrid of gypsy jazz, flamenco and Eastern European folk” (Guitar Player Magazine), while creating the “rockin’-est 12-string guitar since early Leo Kottke” (Austin Chronicle).

Let me add to those plaudits: “Jacobs takes the 12-string guitar where it’s rarely gone before, melding world music textures and rhythms with extraordinary fingerstyle wizardry.”

He added to his audience – albeit in much smaller fashion – on Wednesday when he was my Local Spins Live guest on News Talk 1340 AM (WJRW), talking about his boundary-pushing work as a musician and performing a Bosnian folk tune outside St. Cecilia Music Center in downtown Grand Rapids where WJRW’s Dave Jaconette was staging a radio remote.

Jacobs has made his home in Grand Haven the past two years.

You can watch a video of his stunning guitar work on Local Spins Live below. (Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties related to connections at the remote location, a podcast of the entire show and interview is unavailable this week. You can check out last week’s Local Spins Live artist, Deborah Kay & the Bluebloods, by clicking here.)

Jacobs starting playing guitar as a child, joking that his mother hired a “hippie guitarist” to teach him some basic chords at age 10. But from that point on, he says, he forged ahead on his own.

After his fusion group, Coldfish, toured with the likes of Spyro Gyra and Jeff Lorber in the 1980s, Jacobs’ musical exploration took a distinct, world music turn when he traveled to the Soviet Union to attend the Moscow Film Festival. During that visit, he ended up performing for varied audiences and found himself intrigued by the region’s folk music.

Since then, he’s traveled and performed across Europe, finding particular inspiration in gypsy and Balkan music. “I love the odd rhythms,” he says, noting that his penchant for this music “must be genetically in my blood.”

Not surprisingly, he’s been working on a new solo studio album, “Balkan Memories,” in which he plans to revisit these influences. He also plans to record a live album with other musicians later this year at Bill Chrysler’s Red Wall North studios in Grand Haven.

This week, Jacobs will perform at several music showcases in Grand Rapids as part of the Midwest Arts Conference being held at DeVos Place and the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. The conference is considered the preeminent booking and educational conference for the Midwest performing arts industry, with nearly 1,000 artists, managers, agents, venue representatives, performing arts presenters and arts administrators on hand through Saturday.

Jacobs will perform at 9:10 tonight (Wednesday) in the Governor’s Room of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, followed by a 10:15 p.m. show in the Pantlind Ballroom. He’ll also play at 11:10 p.m. Thursday in the Ford Ballroom. (A host of other musical artists from across the Midwest also will be performing. See the schedule and get more details about the conference here.)

For more information about Jacobs and to purchase his CDs, visit his website at neiljacobs.com.


Email: jsinkevics@gmail.com

9/14 – 9/16

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