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His Guitar Needs No Limelight

Thomas Staudter

Concert picture featuring Carly Simon and Peter Calo
photograph by Rahav Segev

For the guitarist Peter Calo, being part of the seven-piece band backing the pop star Carly Simon during her recent performance at Rose Hall in Manhattan meant accompanying her in a wide range of musical styles and changing guitars on practically every song.

But as Ms. Simon sang her 1986 hit "Coming Around Again" and was rewarded with the first of several standing ovations, the spotlight shifted to Mr. Calo, of Croton-on-Hudson, who had worked until then in the relative shadows onstage. Now was the time for his solo feature.

He started out by finger picking an improvised traditional-type melody on his acoustic guitar, and then, in a jazzy fashion, shifted chord structures between octaves. As if he were demonstrating all the things a guitar could do, he interjected ringing harmonic notes before winding through a long flamenco-style passage, only to return to a filigree of notes that revealed themselves to be the beginning of "We Have No Secrets," another of Ms. Simon's songs.

The audience applauded enthusiastically, as did Ms. Simon before moving back to the microphone and starting to sing.

"When it's my time to step out during the show, I don't really think about what it is that I'm going to play," Mr. Calo said a few days later. "Instead, I just try to feed off the moment. After Carly has gotten all that applause, though, it's a daunting situation. But she's given me this special solo in her show, which is incredibly gracious, so I try to play something that will move her. Some nights she tells me to keep playing, even after I've figured it was time to move the show along."

Around the music business, Mr. Calo, 50, is a highly regarded guitarist whose deep knowledge of music and versatile style have resulted in a packed schedule that leaves him little time to write and sing his own songs. Like many professional musicians ready for hire, he tries not to turn down work, he said, resulting in hop-scotches from gig to gig while backing Linda Eder, Joe Pesci and Rosie O'Donnell among others.

For the past 11 years, though, he has been associated most prominently with Ms. Simon, 60, who as a live performer is peripatetic at best, but who is presently in the midst of her first major tour in 10 years. This time she is sharing the stage with her two adult children, Sally and Ben Taylor, who are also singers.

"I see one of my roles in the band is to make sure Carly's comfortable onstage and having fun," Mr. Calo said. Originally a substitute for another guitarist at a small concert Ms. Simon presented on Martha's Vineyard in 1994, he is now the senior member of her band.

"Peter is an extreme virtuoso, and he's so easygoing, which keeps things relaxed onstage," Ms. Simon said in a phone interview. "He can improvise better than anyone, I think, and when he solos it always seems to be a natural thing. Often I'll use him to double me when I'm playing guitar, and he's able to do that and not shine. He can take a back seat as well as a front seat."

Mr. Calo started playing guitar at 14. The youngest of three sons, he was reared in the small town of Holden in the Canadian province of Alberta. He took to the guitar "as therapy," he said, during "rough times." When he was 15 his family moved to the Boston area; he progressed so fast on the guitar that v=by 17 he was playing professionally in Top40 cover bands on the East Coast.

Deciding to focus more on his songwriting, Mr. Calo founded a jazz-rock group called Bellvista in the early 1980's, and then led two other groups popular around Boston in the 1`980's and early 1990's, the Peter Calo Band and the Heavy Metal Horns.

By 1995, saying he felt "that it was time to move on and meet some new people," Mr. Calo and his wife, Marianne, a nurse from England whom he married in 1994, decided to relocate to New York. They lived in Brooklyn for two years before going to Mount Vernon and later settling in North Salem. In 2002, the couple bought a bungalow-style house on a hillside in Croton-on-Hudson, where they live with their three daughters, Fiona, 8; Amelia, 4; and Molly, who will be 2 in December.

The Carly Simon tour ends in Chicago on December 9. Mr. Calo says that although he finds life on the road interesting, he also feels that I'm lucky to be able to stay close to home."

For the last three and a half years he has been a regular in the pit band of the Broadway musical "Hairspray," hopping onboard a Metro-North train to go home late at night, carrying his guitar case.

Lately, Mr. Calo has also been involved in other projects.

Last fall he met Chris Cain and Adelmo Guidarelli, opera singers living in the country who had decided to start a multimedia show called "Voices Among Us."

Looking for original songs for a variety of singers to work with, they started off using some of the material from "Wired TO The Moon," Mr. Calo's second album, which was released in 1998. He has released three CD's as a solo artist over the years, the last being "Cowbow Song" in 2000. Mr. Calo has been writing original songs for the show, which appears on RCN, a cable network, and was a guest on one episode.

"The day Peter came into tape the show was just a blast," said Mr. Cain , of Eastchester. "He was hysterically funny, goofing around on the guitar. He can play anything on the spot. To watch and listen to him is a real inspiration."

Mr. Calo has also been helping to teach guitar to the actors involved in a musical film, "Across the Universe," that Julie Taymore is directing.

Since Molly was born I don't take any gigs for granted because every dollar counts," he said. "Balancing work and family -- I'm forever trying to come up with the perfect equation in that regard."


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