If the idea of John Fahey not performing alone is anathema to you, think again as he is joined by an array of musicians from the 60's and earlier. There are still some solo recordings on here and these are of customary brilliance, but you get the bonus of and old-tyme Dixieland feel to other tracks. You also get two albums on one CD so it's full value.
Americana Guitarist JOHN FAHEY divides listeners – some worship him as an extraordinary innovator for the instrument – others call him a curio curmudgeon who couldn’t produce a commercial album to save his life. I love the idea of both – and man could he play. This was a man part Robert Johnson – part Django Reinhardt – and impressive on both genre fronts. But before we get into this gorgeous 2015 CD reissue from England’s Beat Goes On Records – some history on the great man...
Born in Takoma Park, Maryland, Washington in 1939 (he named his record label after his birth place - Takoma Records) – Fahey first put down tracks for the tiny Fonotone label in the USA in 1958 masquerading as a black musician called Blind Thomas (check out the fabulous Fonotone Box Set on Dust To Digital from 2009). A staggering 11 albums later (most on his own Takoma label and in the late Sixties with Vanguard) – he signed to the home of Ry Cooder and Leon Redbone – Reprise Records. And that’s where these overlooked LP nuggets from 1972 and 1973 come in (paired together on this CD).
UK released 25 May 2015 – "Of Rivers And Religion/After The Ball" by JOHN FAHEY on Beat Goes On BGOCD 1184 (Barcode 5017261211842) offers 2LPs on 1CD and breaks down as follows (68:12 minutes):
1. Steamboat Gwine ‘Round De Bend 2. Medley: Deep River/Ol’ Man River 3. Dixie Pig Bar-B-Q Blues 4. Texas And Pacific Blues 5. Funeral Song For Mississippi John Hurt [Side 2] 6. Medley: By The Side Of The Road/I Come, I Come 7. Lord Have Mercy 8. Song Tracks 1 to 8 are his 12th album “Of Rivers And Religion” – released 1972 in the USA on Reprise RS 2089 and in the UK on Reprise K 44213
9. Horses 10. New Orleans Shuffle 11. Beverly 12. Om Shanti Norris 13. I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free 14. When You Wore A Tulip (And I Wore A Big Red Rose)/I Come, I Come 15. Hawaiian Two-Step 16. Bucktown Stomp 17. Candy Man 18. After The Ball Tracks 9 to 18 are his 13th album “After The Ball” – released September 1973 in the USA on Reprise RS 2145 and in the UK on Reprise K 44246
The card wrap that’s now standard with all BGO releases lends the whole shebang a classy-feel - as does the 16-page booklet. You get album artwork, musician credits, Nat Hentoff’s original liner notes on 1972’s “Of Rivers And Religion” as well as superb new paragraphs on the man’s eccentric life and output by noted music writer JOHN O’REGAN. Both albums were produced by Fahey and Denny Bruce – and to say they’re audiophile is an understatement. These records sound awesome – so clear and warm – every instrument brought to the fore by ANDREW THOMPSON and his 2015 remasters – gorgeous stuff.
Every one of the 18 tracks on offer here is a highly produced acoustic steel-string guitar instrumental (6 and 12-string) featuring open tuning picking (a style he championed and is famous for). The music is very Ry Cooder Americana territory - Traditionals, Dixieland Jazz, Music Hall, Blues, Spirituals, Bluegrass and plenty of original picker tunes from Fahey’s own considerable talent (Tracks 1, 3, 5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 15 and 16 are his own). Even when tackling something like “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” (a tune made famous by Nina Simone), the Ragtime cover of Bill Whitmore’s “New Orleans Shuffle” or the Blues of Gary Davis on “Candy Man” – Fahey would arrange the songs in his own highly stylized guitar-picker way.
Both albums featured a stellar cast of players including Chris Darrow of Kaleidoscope fame on Fiddle and Guitar (also did stints with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and James Taylor) as well as people like Trumpeter and Arranged Jack Feierman who’d been with Count Basie’s Orchestra for years. “Texas And Pacific Blues” features the Dixieland Jazz of happy funerals while his own “Funeral Song For Mississippi John Hurt” is a lot more chipper that its title suggests (he makes one guitar sound like three). As you listen to the Medley of “By The Side Of The Road” and “I Come, I Come” - you can just see yourself sat back on a log barge as you float down the Mississippi in the summertime – ragged hat on your head and a straw in your mouth – not a care in the word as the world washes by. And again this track shows off that astonishing Production – the mournful strokes of Joel Druckman on his Double Bass giving it an epic and sad vibe. Dixieland kicks in for the Traditional “Lord Have Mercy” and it ends on the impossibly pretty and simple “Song”.
“After The Ball” continues in the vein of its predecessor with more emphasis on Ragtime than Blues. It’s never had a good rep as an album amongst fans or collectors and it’s easy to hear why some view it as dull and flat despite the excellence of the musicianship. Highlights however include the aloha hip-shuffle of “Hawaiian Two-Step” and the lovely yet lonesome “Beverly” where he bends and echoes those strings in the air that exits your speakers. He keeps “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” short at 2:36 minutes but I can’t help thinking that the Ragtime Band that kicks in halfway through does for the song – and not in a good way. Faring better is the pretty picking of the “When You Wore A Tulip (And I Wore A Big Red Rose)” The tired dance band on the Titanic feel of “After The Ball” ends the album with Trombone from Britt Woodman and Clarinet from Joe Darensbourg – but again feels oddly wrong somehow. Personally I like “Of Rivers And Religion” as an album better.
With Fahey’s music sometimes there’s a feeling that not a lot going on but guitar picking – and some of that feels ever so slightly laboured too. But there are other times when this is the most gorgeous music in the world – and even if it never dented a chart anywhere – statistics aren’t everything. I think a genius is allowed ups and downs – and this beautiful sounding CD offers both...
John Fahey knew his stuff. He knew how to wear both his musicianship and his learning lightly and that's something not a lot of people get the knack for. He was also in love with the music that fired him up, but that isn't something we need to dwell on, not when his recorded legacy speaks for itself, and tells us of that love.
These two albums were recorded in 1972 and 1973 by which time he'd been putting out records for about a decade. The first of them is arguably his greatest achievement, not least because it strikes such a fine balance. As was often not the case he's joined by other musicians on that title, but go to `Dixie Pig Bar B-Q Blues' and if you listen closely you might be able to make out the crickets in the thicket and the corn mash being poured into a shot-glass as the evening sun dapples the leaves. It is, in short, music for goose bumps.
Also played by an ensemble `Texas & Pacific Blues' is indeed, as Sid Griffin points out in the booklet notes, the sound of a band in a Louisiana speakeasy circa 1933. It's also a soundtrack for the smiles of the heart.
Fahey's thing for animals crops up again on `Horses' on the latter title, and sure enough he musically captures the young horse taking its first carefully certain steps.
In the company of Peter Jameson on second guitar Fahey shows just what a deft player he was on `Bucktown Stomp' which perhaps inevitably is also the work of men so enamoured with America's musical heritage that not doing it properly would be tantamount to sacrilege.
So it runs deep, this set, deep enough for you to want to own it. If you do you'll at least get some insight into how it can be done, while the other delights it has to offer are too numerous to mention here.
This is a release of some of JF's more obscure recordings (are there any that aren't obscure). As someone who knows him primarily as a finger style solo guitarist it is good also to hear him in an extended format. Worth adding to any collection.