The image of a wimp playing an acoustic guitar is a classic. Most iconic is the scene in Animal House where a forlorn folkie (played by San Diego's Steven Bishop) is seated on the frat house steps with the sweater brigade, sorrowfully strumming to the tune of "I gave my love a cherry that had no stone." Seconds later, the much funnier and more talented John Belushi shatters Bishop's guitar against the wall and returns to the toga party.
Woe is we when three of America's tender it-boys start crowing. On Oct. 13, Jim James, M. Ward and Conor Oberst will collaborate to fill Spreckels Theater using only their voices and six strings.
The security blankets will be gone. No Bright Eyes for Oberst. No My Morning Jacket for James. No using Rilo Kiley as a backing band for Ward.
"People appreciate having this new concept of touring," Ward says. "I guess I still believe that people would rather listen to the words than pay the cover to just hang out and talk with their friends. Maybe I'm naïve."
All three artists use the guitar-voice combo as a personal orchestra; the challenge, Ward suggests, is successfully atoning for the missing backbeat and rhythm with an acoustic guitar.
"I love the idea of holding six instruments in one," Ward says. "Just judging from the last collaborative acoustic tour we did, I think people still want to hear... melodies the way that they were written."
Then there are those who cringe at this sort of tour, viewing it as wimpy and wussy and un-rock. Local acoustic maven and "short, blonde person" Anya Marina can relate, but says it all depends on the attitude.
"The acoustic guitar might up the perceived "wussy folk' quotient, but once people hear the songs, I think they get that wimpiness is a function of lyrics and attitude, not what gear I'm using," she proposes. "I just saw Frank Black rock the acoustic the other night at RIMAC and it was pretty fierce. It's all in the 'tude, baby."
"Ultimately, things become much more about the song," says local producer Sven-Erik Seaholm about the James-Ward-Oberst tour. "You can play your band's most popular tunes, but if it's the sound of your band that's been the draw rather than good, solid songwriting, people will become quickly bored with your performance.
"You're trading bombast for intimacy, so I hope you've got something to say."
Jim James, Conor Oberst and M. Ward play Spreckels Theatre on Oct. 13. $23.50. 619-220-8497.