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                                                                                                                       photo Paul Kelly

The WIRE
Issue 189, Nov. 1999

on location

John Fahey

UK: London Queen Elizabeth Hall - October 2, 1999

From the shaggy dog legend of his 60s alter ego Blind Joe Death, to the 'guitar legend' description applied to his older, shaggier self, erstwhile folklore student John Fahey always seems to come surrounded by some kind of rumour, and his Guitar Excursions Into The Unknown Tour in October was no exception. Originally billed as a soundclash with Derek Bailey, the promoters failed to get Bailey on board and Fahey was set to drift around the UK, reportedly saying he'd play with anyone who wanted to come up on stage with him.

The secure, padded ambience of the Queen Elizabeth Hall can provide a sonic romper room for Japanese noise artists, but it is not the best platform for musicians dealing in oblique subversion. Both Fahey. and the supporting duo of Lol Coxhill and Veryan Weston, seemed keen to Informalise their acts in surreal ways. Coxhill's opening line was perhaps the strangest. Apologising for any awkward positions Weston might adopt on his piano stool during the performance, he assured the audience that this was not "expressiveness" on Weston's part but the result of a car accident: "He can't sit still; but he can play." That said, they opened into some busy but friendly takes on jazz standards, Coxhill's soprano sax squeezing out smeared, bebop-like runs against Weston's adept tonal shifts - somewhere between Monk and Satie with the occasional music hall tumble. Bright and smiley music, as opposed to the more exacting free improvisatory style they air at the Red Rose Club.

After the interval, and without any Fahey's style as a return to the primitive, then it's not primitive by being harsh so much as by hovering on the edge of formlessness It's the ideal American independent movie soundtrack. Jim O'Rourke's Bad Timing is a close comparison here - a slowly rippling guitar music that unfolds to the length where it starts to blank out personal expression. But however much Fahey's emphatic thumbwork sometimes seems to pick out jauntier ragtime or pseudosaloon piano rhythms, these long, presumably semi-improvised takes are drawn time and again into a dirge-like ambience. Fahey's fingers like to work down the guitar neck from fret to fret in a slowly and fatefully descending chord shape - an inspiration of descent, the ultimate tombstone folk-blues: it's all one wake. And yet something keeps Fahey's playing breezy at the same time, especially in the latter half of the set, when the guitar's tone seemed to get brighter and the notes came in rapid succession. Unlikely though it sounds, the continuous, flowing lines and melodic, impressionistic amalgam of announcement or Introduction, Fahey's rather Altmanesque figure - a rotund and grizzled Bismarck in T-shirt, shorts, socks and trainers - padded obliviously onto the dimly lit stage clutching a can of something, picked up a standard flat-bodied electric guitar, switched on the echo box, and started thrumming away at some bass notes In a taut, almost bouzouki-like style. A London listings magazine, presumably taking its cue from the association with Bailey and Coxhill, not to mention Fahey's previous forays into musique concrete, had billed the concert as 'jazz-improv' But after the first few minutes it was clear that Fahey was tapping into something far more meditative. Recalling his acoustic Blind Joe Death instrumentals of the early 60s, these were slow, measured, mantra-like dissertations on the billboard-sized possibilities of the American folk riff. Seemingly lost in concentration, Fahey uncoiled fingerpicked odysseys in open tuning technique that flowed on raga-like for ten, 15 minutes, or plucked out bluesy licks and Arab-style trills, reminiscent of Davey Graham, then shifted into a harshly accented but stately "Smoke On The Water" style bar chord riff.

Where the bluesy arpeggio exercises of his early works sound like a cross between Mississippi John Hurt and Philip Glass, or a slowed down bluegrass, the electric guitar gives Fahey's playing a cooler, more abrasive and crushed splendour. The terse and understated thumbed riffs form plain, bareboned lines which recalled Nell Young in his later rugged glory - a sombre psycho-folk - while the echo box provided a shimmering tonal anchorage. If you were to describe Fahey's style as a return to the primitive, then it's not primitive by being harsh so much as by hovering on the edge of formlessness It's the ideal American independent movie soundtrack.

Jim O'Rourke's Bad Timing is a close comparison here a slowly rippling guitar music that unfolds to the length where it starts to blank out personal expression. But however much Fahey's emphatic thumbwork sometimes seems to pick out jauntier ragtime or pseudo- saloon piano rhythms, these long, presumably semi-improvised takes are drawn time and again into a dirge-like ambience. Fahey's fingers like to work down the guitar neck from fret to fret in a slowly and fatefully descending chord shape an inspiration of descent, the ultimate tombstone folk-blues: it's all one wake.

And yet something keeps Fahey's playing breezy at the same time, especially in the latter half of the set, when the guitar's tone seemed to get brighter and the notes came in rapid succession. Unlikely though it sounds, the continuous, flowing lines and melodic, impressionistic amalgam of classical and folk techniques reminded me of The Durutti Column Though I'd have loved to have seen the original double bill of Fahey and Bailey, the combination of Fahey and Vini Reilly would have been a match made, not in heaven, but in a limbo where you wait to discover whether you are saved or damned.

Out of nowhere, Fahey suddenly speaks into the microphone, "I think its time to stop this. I'll go back and find out," and pads offstage. When he returns a few moments later he mumbles something about mistaking the time and launches into two further pieces, one of which turns into a macabre, funereal bouzouki. The other is a perfectly poised rendition of "Summertime", played tautly, as if on a zither, but faded, like something heard around a street corner well into autumn. It finishes abruptly as if Fahey suddenly remembers something he wanted to do backstage clearly the dissonance will out, at some level.
MATT FFYTCHE

Reprinted with permission of The Wire magazine. Be sure to visit their website located at: www.dfuse.com/the-wire

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