Acoustic guitar blues has had a bit of a revival lately, in large part due to the Imaginational Anthem series, now three albums along. The series, which was launched in 2005 by Tompkins Square Records, takes as its starting point the Takoma-style finger-picking of John Fahey and his early 1960s contemporaries, seeking out the original artists in this genre, as well as younger players who are influenced by them.
Tonight’s performance showcases three artists from the most recent Imaginational Anthem 3 CD. The two younger artists—Cian Nugent and Ben Reynolds—have made the trip from the United Kingdom. Nugent is Irish and Reynolds, though English, is now living in Glasgow. Banjoist George Stavis, the old timer on the bill, comes from the neighborhood, apparently, somewhere in Western Massachusetts, though with his best known album, Labyrinths, released by Vanguard in 1969, he has traveled temporally further than anyone.
There are only about a dozen people at the show, held in an old mill converted to a bookstore, with a waterfall roaring outside the open window and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on every wall. It is, however, quite a nice place to hear music, perched on couches, less than ten feet away from the musicians.
Ben Reynolds goes first, tuning up a guitar donated earlier that day in Boston by Glenn Jones, himself an Imaginational Anthem alumni and a John Fahey scholar. Later, Reynolds explains that neither he or Nugent wanted to risk bringing their own guitars on an airplane in the current security-conscious environment—and that he himself had been delayed for several days because of a missing chip in his passport.
Reynolds starts with “Here Toucheth Blues”, his song on the Imaginational Anthem 3 compilation, beginning with meltingly beautiful, meditative arpeggios, and moving to a lighter, more playful mid-section. He plays hunched over this guitar, long hair falling across his face, whether absorbed in the music or shy or both, it’s hard to tell. A new song follows, its sprightly old folk melody executed with difficult-looking double bends, and then he retunes for “England” coaxing a much darker, more melancholy sound out of his instrument.
Stavis, from the couch sitting next to his college-age daughter, asks Reynolds if he’ll sing a little, and Reynolds performs two vocal tracks, both originals, both unfamiliar to me. He’s got a very nice tenor voice, shot through with a little vibrato, higher than Bert Jansch but in the same sort of family and reminding me a little of Ed Askew. The second song, so far untitled, is particularly lovely, with long fluid guitar motifs and florid, romantic imagery of flight and wings and love gone wrong. This seems to be a sort of theme for Reynolds who introduces the next song, “Kirsty”, as “about a woman whose life I made very difficult for four years… she’s free now.”
Cian Nugent is next, also opening with his entry from the Imaginational Anthem compilation. This one, “When the Snow Melts and Floats Downstream”, starts with a lingering series of splayed chords, and then bursts into sudden flurries of tranquil picking. The music moves like thought, beginning, hurrying forward, and coming to a pause before beginning again. The stops are, perhaps, the most beautiful part of this sort of music, haunted as they are by the tones and overtones of past notes.
Nugent, too, is not much for eye contact, tucking his head up against the shoulder of the guitar, ear pressed next to the fretting board. He plays “The Ceremony” next, a blues-tempered composition, where a simple quarter-note-based melody is surrounded and supplemented by swarms of rapid-fire picking. He switches after this to a 12-string, again from Glenn Jones, tracking a dark-ish, minor key melody that sounds somewhere between a reel and a raga. Nugent breaks into strident, strummed three-rhythmed chords at one point then slips back to whispery cascades of 16th notes and even 32nd notes. It’s fast and full of skill but so translucently pretty that you forget about the difficulty.
George Stavis closes out the show, offering asides about his life and work and musical obsession, the banjo. His first song, “Murder in Georgia”, hews to a very traditional country/bluegrass style. He mentions that he learned it in college. Then he talks about the unique properties of the banjo, how like a harpsichord, it creates notes that rapidly decay. (Stavis seems to get an unusual amount of sustained tone and overtone out of his instrument, however. He even creates a whammy-bar-like effect by cupping his hand over the strings and waving the face of the banjo slightly.)
In a break, Stavis talks about how the banjo is, essentially, a drum with strings, very similar to the Indian sarode mastered by Ali Akbar Khan. Stavis recalls how, studying with Khan in the 1960s, he had a sudden epiphany. “I said, ‘It’s a banjo,” he remembers, finding a link between the Celtic-Appalachian tradition of his instrument with the traditional Indian instrument. That leads into “Eastern-Western” a cross-cultural hoedown built on Eastern scales and rhythms.
Stavis next plays “My Favorite Things”, the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from The Sound Of Music explaining that he decided to re-make the song after being transfixed by John Coltrane’s version. The song, which is on Labyrinths, is indeed, pretty far from Julie Andrews-land, opening with dissonant chords and striking percussive energy. It strips down briefly, mid-song, to just the melody, minimally embellished with minor harmonies, then rebuilds into a mass of rapid-fire picking.
Stavis is the only banjo player in Imaginational Anthem‘s guitar-centric universe, so he, too, plays his cut from the new comp, called “Goblins,” and then a slow, heart-heavy song called “Appalachian Winter” that he says was inspired by the Ken Burns series, The Civil War. It is deeply traditional, in a personal way, conveying real human emotions through a difficult art that requires skill. Which, come to think of it, could sum up the whole lovely evening. More people should hear this music. If you get a chance, go.