Stunning double album mapping the career of an underrated folk great.
Spencer Grady 2011
Just as John Fahey and Robbie Basho were belatedly sainted by a slew of avant-garde musicians eager to enrich their experimental fields with old primitive tradition, so the same enclave have reached out to embrace Yorkshire-born minstrel Michael Chapman.
It was Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore – a long-time fan – who arguably provided the catalyst for this unlikely renaissance, interviewing him at length for The Fretboard Journal at the tail end of 2009. During their discussion, the pair mapped out an arc stretching from Chapman’s emergence on the British folk scene in 1967 – where his style was frequently compared to that of players like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn – to his current involvement with the esoteric American underground.
This rich and varied set charts that trajectory, stopping off at different points in the career of this long-unrecognised guitar master for a collection of poignant, melodic instrumentals. Blues, boogie, folk and flamenco are all covered, without any facet seeming out of place. Along the way Chapman offers tribute to a few of his stateside contemporaries with a superb reading of 1974’s Fahey’s Flag, its bottleneck whinny serving as fitting tribute to his old touring partner, while a version of Tom Rush’s Rockport Sunday appears to reference Leo Kottke in its chiming harmonic introduction.
It’s easy to discern the influence of Chapman’s poised and tumbling grace on the latest generation of six-string troubadours, such as James Blackshaw and the late, great Jack Rose. Pieces like Little Molly’s Dream, Ponchatoulah and Trying Times (a requiem for Rose) plunge a procession of cascading notes into the ether like a mountainside waterfall communing with a gleaming pool of dancing eddies – sheer swirls of homespun emotion.
Occasionally, Chapman eschews the acoustic for a raw strain of electrified blues that, on 1996’s Sensimilia, recalls nothing as much as The Durutti Column. It might seem funny, then, that a track called Thurston’s House (written during a stay at the home of the Sonic Youth head honcho while out on tour with New York’s freely-improvising No-Neck Blues Band) is simply another wonderful example of his subtle folk phrasing. Those looking for more visceral thrills will no doubt welcome news of Chapman’s forthcoming noise album for Moore’s Ecstatic Peace imprint.