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The rhythm section keep up its end of things in other ways too absorbing the extra duties imposed by Healey’s

Posted on 22 August 2010

The rhythm section keep up its end of things in other ways, too, absorbing the extra duties imposed by Healey’s visual impairment: Stephens, for instance, acts as the band’s manager, and when I go to interview the guitarist the following day, Rockman sits in to augment Healey’s answers and compensate for the communication shortfall occasioned by lack of eye-contact.Tonight, they’re further augmented on stage by a second guitarist, Phil, who – with his chest-length hair, wafer-thin torso and denim-clad legs disappearing into a pair of extraordinary outsized platform hobnail boots – resembles nothing so much as a Robert Crumb cartoon of a lead guitarist. He’s no slouch at the six-string shuffle, either, though naturally all eyes are fixed on Healey himself, who remains one of the most distinctive performers in rock, thanks to a unique playing-style in which the guitar is held in his lap and fretted from above like a lap steel guitar, but without the usual slide or bottleneck.The main advantage of the method is that it allows him to use the thumb as well as the fingers of his left hand, enabling a speed and dexterity of fretting unavailable to normal players. “I suppose that’s the main advantage, from a theoretical technique standpoint,” Healey agrees, “but you need the imagination and creativity behind it to put it all together and make it work.”"There is another thing that Jeff’s technique allows,” adds Rockman, “and that is the pulling of the string for vibrato. If your hand is gripping the neck in the usual manner, you have to pull down, and the gripping motion does limit it; Jeff pulls up, so he’s able to bend the strings differently. For me, it’s wonderful to observe, because I’m watching this sound come, seeing how the notes are being formed, and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t think that can be done!’ but it is.

It’s also to do with the reach – Jeff’s hand is large as it is, but when he extends the thumb, it can go half-way down the neck.”"Did you say, ‘watching the sound’?” ribs the guitarist gently. “I like that! Should be the title for an album.” Not much gets past Healey, whose blindness is partly compensated for by an unusual aural acuity. It can be as much a hindrance as a help, however, prompting uncertainty about whether he’s holding his audience’s attention. A couple of times during the show at Zaphod 2, for instance, he’s clearly disturbed by the kind of crowd hubbub that must be common to most Canadian clubs. “I’m sorry,” he offers sarcastically, head turned pointedly toward a couple of boozy loudmouths at the bar; “do I bore the shit out of you?”Asked whether his keenness of hearing renders him more sensitive to extraneous noise, he concedes the possibility but claims other, fully sighted artists find audience chatter just as annoying.

“Somebody told me Gordon Lightfoot will not allow talking,” he says. “If people start talking at his shows, he has been known to leave the stage.”Healey at least stays put for the duration of the band’s set, playing the first few songs standing up, his guitar cradled on a custom-built stand, before reverting to his more usual, seated position.”We discovered that with Jeff sitting down for the entire performance, on low stages people can’t see him,” explains Rockman; “so we figured we’d try and have Jeff standing for at least some of the performance – though as much as it works, it’s still not the most natural thing for him to be doing.”Healey concurs. “A lot of my playing-style is a combination of the hand to the neck to support from the knees,” he says. “It’s amazing how much of my whole body goes into producing the sound.”By the end of the show, just about every part of Healey’s body has been brought into play. During “Feel Better” – whose descending riff is a second cousin to Zep’s “Dazed and Confused” – he stands up, guitar gripped in his lap, and lurches about the stage, eventually rolling around on his back in mid-solo.

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