Renaissance Man

A tall man in his mid-forties with long wavy hair, a full beard, and round glasses, Richard Griffith has something of a troubadour’s air about him, which is appropriate given his status as a full-time lutenist. Since live lute music is no longer the draw it was five hundred years ago, Griffith has added a few extras to his act: poetry, prose, and prestidigitation. To the extent that the Upper Midwest has a market niche for a lute-playing illusionist, Richard Griffith owns that niche.

On a crisp evening a few weeks ago, the musician/magician was at the Mad Hatter Tea House in St. Paul for one of his usual gigs. As he sat tuning his lute—a plump, bent-neck instrument that Griffith has heard described as “a broken guitar”—his wife Ann walked around arranging chairs. A grandmotherly soul named Fran Gray was pouring tea, and the dozen or so middle-aged patrons conversed amiably. “This is good tea.” “I like tea.” “Oh, I do too!” Shortly after seven o’clock, Griffith launched into one of the greatest hits of 1611. His audience sat in rapt silence; later, they ooohed appreciatively when he introduced a twelfth-century story about a werewolf.

After several more lute pieces, Griffith asked, “Now, would you indulge me by letting me abuse your eyes and judgments?” A giggling volunteer chose a card from a deck he presented. The audience burst into applause when, after some theatrical maneuvers, Griffith produced a red cloth bearing the image of the card his volunteer had chosen. Then it was time for musical requests. “You know what I want to hear!” one fan exclaimed. “Yes, I do,” nodded Griffith as he played the first notes of “Kemp’s Jig.” Listeners’ desires aren’t always so transparent. “Beat My Wife” was a shouted request at one show. “Um,” Griffith ventured, “do you mean ‘Whip My Toady’?” The fan shrugged. “I knew whipping was in there somewhere.”

Griffith’s skill in working a crowd dates to the early ’90s, when he worked at Treasure Island Casino as a sleight-of-hand artist—one who performed in a sequined pirate costume. “There’d be days when someone was losing big, and they’d come over and yell at the guy in the sequined suit,” he recalls. “Definitely not wanting a card trick at that time.” A guitarist since childhood, he acquired a lute on a whim in 2001, and within a few years was playing Renaissance fairs. Initially he didn’t get quite the reception he expected—he recalls that it was as if he were sitting there teaching algebra. “You would think playing Renaissance music at a Renaissance festival would be a no-brainer, but I have not found that to be so. A group out at the Fest last year was playing Jethro Tull covers, and I thought, OK, no room for the lute guy here.”

Still, over time, Griffith has cultivated a base of devoted fans who appreciate both his proficiency on an obscure instrument and his willingness to indulge in just a little of the old razzle-dazzle. A year ago, he left his longtime desk job at an HMO to make a go of it as a full-time lutenist on the coffee-shop circuit, doing the occasional wedding gig on the side. His income from tips is sufficient to make the performances worth his while, and his wife is enthusiastically supportive. “It’s been good for him,” she says with an affectionate smile.

Griffith’s most dedicated followers proudly refer to themselves as “the Usual Suspects.” There’s Steve Lelchuk, who sat with a book at the Mad Hatter performance, having attended another the night before. When Griffith mentioned his CDs for sale, Dan and Brandy Gergen joked that having one in every room of their house was sufficient. They discovered Griffith one day at the Olde World Renaissance Faire in Twig, Minnesota, where they were impressed enough to listen through several of his sets.

Other Usual Suspects have done serious time in the mead-and-wenches milieu. Janet Davis, the ebullient card-trick volunteer, attends every single day of the Minnesota Renaissance Festival—in period costume. Indeed, a performance by Griffith is something of a mellow little Renaissance festival unto itself. He brought magic tricks into his act in part as a hook for crowds, but his ultimate goal is to complement the music with illusions incorporating mentalism, alchemy, and other supernatural preoccupations from the golden age of the lute.

After Griffith closed with a sprightly dance number, several fans stayed to chat and rearrange the chairs. “Once you’ve been to a few shows,” explained Griffith as he packed up, “you’re one of the Usual Suspects and you’re going to get a hug when you leave.” With an instrument whose heyday is ye olde, Griffith appreciates his avid following. “Honestly, can the Rolling Stones say they’ve got that one guy who comes to see them play every time?” He paused. “Of course,” he acknowledged, “I don’t charge three hundred dollars for tickets.”