Music

Various: The Revenge of Blind Joe Death

This respectful tribute to an irreplaceable giant of Americana throws in a few surprises and entertains from start to finish.


Various Artists

The Revenge of Blind Joe Death

Subtitle: The John Fahey Tribute Album
Label: Takoma
US Release Date: 2006-08-22
UK Release Date: 2006-10-09
Amazon
iTunes

John Fahey, the late guitarist, self-mythologizer, Takoma records boss, and all round legendary curmudgeon has, since his death in 2001, continued to inspire and influence a whole new generation of acoustic guitarists. It's to the point where almost every other current folk-tinged hipster whipper-snapper cites the great Blind Joe Death himself as an important reference point in understanding their work.

So it's nice to find that, for this tribute CD released on Fahey's own Takoma label, the organizers have called on the services of a refreshingly "unheard" range of artists -- many of whom have had direct dealings with the maestro himself as friends, collaborators, students, label-mates, drinking buddies, and so on. The result is a satisfying collection of 20 authentic-sounding tunes, encompassing Fahey compositions, Fahey-championed traditional pieces, and original homages played in the style of the great man.

For the most part, the compositions here concentrate on the country-blues side of what Fahey termed his American Primitive approach: A rough, raw, yet virtuoso approach to playing the steel-stringed acoustic guitar that factors in fast, tumbling finger-picking and earthy slide techniques, conjuring up the deep rural South, Biblical struggles, sweat, and redemption. Less represented on this compilation are Fahey's investigations into Indian raga, minimalism, noise, and musique concrète.

In fact, an awful lot of the tunes here are straightforward, faithfully reproduced interpretations of Fahey's folk-blues cannon, showcasing nimble finger-picking and zithering slide. The more successful, such as Alex De Grassi's take on "The Alligator Walks Sideways on Sunday", retain the dark nuances and slightly sinister reverberations that litter Fahey's work, reminding us that, in the American Primitive universe, Death is never very far away, lurking just out of sight like an exaggerated carnival figure, to be derided as much as feared. Or, take Terry Robb's "Joe Kirby Blues", with its slow, poignant, bluesy picking and solemn, twanging refrain full of sadness and resignation, a sweet acceptance of the inevitable death and suffering in the midst of life.

Some interpretations are less successful. Rick Ruskin's "& 50 Cents Gets You a Cup of Coffee" comes across as a slightly twee, Ry Cooder-ish day-time TV theme tune with all the menace excised. And, truth be told, the seemingly endless succession of dizzying finger-picking from hugely talented guitarists gets a little wearying after a certain point. Even if you really dig country-blues, you can't help feeling that these displays of virtuoso technique are maybe missing the whole point of what Fahey was trying to do: connecting with the red earth and letting the skeleton in his soul speak out through chattering teeth.

That said, there are a lot of surprises here too. Pianist George Winston turns in an astonishing solo harmonica version of "Sally Goodin" -- a relentless, barrage of percussive blowing that whips up a dark vortex of drones and overtones, dragging the listener down to a tiny point of non-existence. It really must be heard to be believed.

Henry Kaiser and John Schott bring in a full electric band to create a seven-minute medley of "Steamboat Gwine Round the Bend" and "How Green was My Valley" -- starting off as a lazy, dreamy blues, with a funky, loose-limbed bassline before shifting up a few gears and diving into a punchy coda with searing feedback and marching drums. As far as electric interpretations go, it's far superior to the other offering here -- a clunky, plodding blues-rock jam from Canned Fish that, frankly, you'd be better off skipping altogether.

Often it's the tiny details that raise a tune to a higher level of artistry and reveal a more scholarly approach to the subject -- such as the tiny burst of Balinese gamelan at the end of Andrew Stanglen's "Days Have Gone By in the Halls of Valhalla" -- a sly and cheeky allusion to Fahey's own influences. And Nels Cline and Elliott Sharp bring the avant-garde firmly back into the equation with a haunting take on "On the Banks of the Owchita", full of ghostly slide, ringing harmonics, and percussive taps to the guitar's body.

The final word, though, goes to Blind Joe Death himself, with an otherwise uncredited piece of authentically old-time country-folk, recorded to sound like a scratchy 78. No matter who actually played it, it is, of course, Fahey checking in from beyond the grave, and the perfect way to end this commendable and hugely enjoyable tribute to a unique giant of American music.

Now, let's get out on the porch and open that bottle….

7

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image