Tuesday, July 20, 2010

album of the day: The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick

Recent events in the Gulf of Mexico had no bearing on the choice of this set of live recordings of legendary guitarist John Fahey for album of the day. John Fahey is my hero, and this was a good accompaniment on my walk to campus today in the 90 degree afternoon (which, for here, in mid July, especially after the past week, is actually rather temperate).

Fahey was a mad genius, innovator of fingerstyle guitar and sometime revivalist of old folk, blues, and gospel music of the United States. No Fahey, no Leo Kottke, in my opinion.

Fahey played intricate, sometimes twisted versions of those old songs, and very often used themes from them in composing his own. You can hear bits of "Shortnin Bread" or "Bicycle Built For Two" in his tunes, for instance - as well as those songs themselves, woven into medleys. Fahey's songs often have what seem to be programmatic titles - "The Death of Clayton Peacock" or the title track of this album - but I don't think the tunes generally have much to do with the titles. (One minor exception is the title track, named after an oil spill off the coast in 1969 - and which appears only on this album; then again, the composition doesn't have a lot to do with oil.)

If the songs are arbitrarily titled, as I suspect some are, this may speak to a certain dismissive attitude toward the compositions. In fact, I've read that Fahey could be very impatient with his older material, playing perfunctory versions of his great songs like "When The Catfish Are In Bloom" or "Requiem For Mississippi John Hurt" in concert.

That's not the case in these performances, one from 1968 and the other probably a year later. The album is a strong collection and covers the range of Fahey's emotional tone, from the tranquil, to the somber, to the absurd. And he did it all with just a guitar, some funky tunings, an occasional slide, and his bizarre brain.

One of my favorite elements of this album is when he makes mistakes in "Catfish" and in "Lion," only to play through the mistake and move on to the next part of the song. Even though these are accidents, Fahey uses them to keep the tunes fresh - of course, also by varying tempos and dynamics from studio versions.

There's something extremely satisfying about listening to "Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Philip XIV of Spain" while jaywalking across Hawkeye Avenue in the middle of the afternoon.

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