“We’re sold out,” said the woman at the desk in the bookstore downstairs. That’s always nerve-wracking when you’re relying on the guest list. The last ditch alternative, buying a ticket, isn’t an option, and it’s the only option at a good third of the shows I’m covering. Still there was some good news. There wasn’t any list, as usual, but one of the shows promoters or someone from the label or someone let me in anyway.
All of which is a long way of saying that the Michael Chapman / Jack Rose show at the Bookmill was a pretty high profile event. Musically, it was quite similar to the acoustic guitar show I saw there a couple of weeks ago. But while only a handful of well-wishers and blood relatives turned out for Imaginational Anthem’s Cian Nugent, Ben Reynolds, and George Stavis, a much larger crowd had assembled for 1970s folksinger Michael Chapman.
You could tell that Chapman was the main draw, because the room was still about a third-empty when Jack Rose started to play. That was a shame, because Rose was—and is—a hell of a guitar player. He got his start in the 1990s with the noisy, electronic-drone-experimental outfit Pelt, but moved towards more acoustic, traditional picking in the early ‘00s. He was one of four players on Locust’s 2003 compilation Wooden Guitar (others were Steffen Basho-Junghans, Sir Richard Bishop, and Tetuzi Akiyama), and, in addition to solo albums, he has appeared on tributes to Peter Walker and on the Imaginational Anthem series.
Rose proved to be a taciturn, mountain-man type, despite his recent relocation to urban Philadelphia. There was no stage banter in this set, and if you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed the transition from tuning to playing, so seamlessly does it happen. The tuning, all by itself, was something to marvel at. Rose tuned the guitar as if it were a natural extension of his body, casually, by ear and with a couple of twists of the knobs. And then he was off, picking out a country reel.
Rose had a physically economical style of playing. He hardly seemed to move at all. In fact, from time to time, he’d take his fretting hand completely off the neck of the guitar and rest it on the base, until he needed it again. And yet the notes moved with an elegant rapidity, fluttering through the air like leaves in the wind and settling into shifting piles. He didn’t announce song titles, but later detective work confirms that his second piece was “Crossing North Fork”, a long, gorgeous, intricately composed piece I first heard on Imaginational Anthem.
Rose switched to a lap steel guitar towards the end of his set, revisiting the music of his old-time-y, cake-walking Dr. Ragtime series of recordings. Rose played these tunes with the guitar horizontal, one hand plucking and the other sliding over the strings with a metal slide. The songs played on this instrument sounded very traditional, old blues or gospel tunes with a familiar lilt and rollick to them. But still, there was strangeness in the wavery slides, Rose’s hand shaking to draw out notes that quivered like Jell-O.
Rose finished, and after a short break Michael Chapman sauntered up to the stage, wearing a baseball cap, pulled low, and the same battered leather jacket you can see on the cover of Time Past and Time Passing.
A road-tested veteran in every sense of the word, he mentioned that he had recently celebrated 40 years of touring. He marked the occasion, he said, with a show at the very same venue he’d begun his career at, with a set that started 40 years to the minute after his debut. “Some of the same people were there,” he said, marveling. “They’d been home, though, you know.”
Born in Yorkshire in 1941, Chapman was part of the great folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s, sharing stages with Roy Harper, John Martyn, and others. He recorded four albums for Harvest Records in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rainmaker, Fully Qualified Survivor, Window, and Wrecked Again, then moved to Deram, a Decca subsidiary, in the later half of the decade. His latest album Time Past and Time Passing, with songs from nearly every stage of his 40 year career, made up the bulk of the evening’s set list, interspersed with often very funny stories about his life so far.
Chapman’s set opened the same way as his latest album, with the gentle folk picked guitar of “A Stranger’s Map of Texas” leading into the darker vocal overtones of “The Twisted Road”, his raspy voice shading lines like “The life that you lead, may be the life you save” with ominous overtones. The old-time-y “Sometimes” followed; a growly romp through pre-war country blues styles.
Chapman broke for another story, this time about how, at age four, as a Methodist, he was asked to swear never to drink alcohol in his life. The pledge was soon broken, but he came away from his religious upbringing loving the hymns. The next song, “Dewsbury Road/That Time of Night”, he said, started with his attempt at a hymn. (There is another story about the second blues-influenced section of this song, involving a late-night convenience store encounter in Waycross, Georgia, with a clerk who actually mutters the phrase “You ain’t from around here, are you?” Chapman counters with “Aren’t you observant, madam? How many Yorkshiremen do you get here on a wet Wednesday?”) And then the song began, its opening guitar line clear and tranquil, its sung interludes beautifully weathered and raspy, and wrapped around the phrase “You know I don’t scare easy, but I do get scared.”
Throughout the set, which included much of the new album—“Ponchatoulah”, “Memphis in Winter”, “Little Molly’s Dream”, “In the Valley”—there’s a tension between the sweet, wholesome country folk of Chapman’s guitar playing and his dark blues-damaged voice. His skill at the guitar was evident. In fact, from where I was sitting, diagonally across from him and several rows back, I could not always see his face, but I had a wonderful view of his picking hand, from the side and slightly underneath. Usually, you can’t tell what the fingers are doing, because they are covered by the hand, but this time, I could make out the one finger picking a melody, the others enveloping it with flourishes and flowering arpeggios. The sureness of his fingers, the complexity of the tune and its accompaniment, was wholly fascinating and absorbing. And yet, if you closed your eyes, the tunes seemed simple, clear, tranquil, and not complicated at all. And maybe that’s what you get from 40 years of playing shows and writing songs and living life, the ability to execute very complicated tunes with a tossed-off flair. Chapman didn’t just make it look easy… he made it look inevitable.