John Fahey - guitar
One of music's great iconoclasts, folk-blues-experimentalist John Fahey is an artistic enigma of the late 20th Century. Inventor of his own myth and influential to musicians as diverse as Jim O'Rourke, Sonic Youth and Leo Kottke, he is the inspiration behind no less than five tribute albums, three of them released in 2006, in the wake of his death in 2001. Fact is, any finger-style or experimental guitarist cannot help owing some kind of debt to Fahey's volume of work.
Fahey himself was from Takoma Park, Maryland and was inspired by music as varied as bluegrass, Tibetan and Gregorian chants, Charles Ives and the deep blues of Blind Willie Johnson and Charley Patton; you can definitely hear those various strains and more in his fluid, dynamic and ultimately gripping work.
Debuting in the late '50s, by the '60s Fahey had become a fairly regular presence on the Bay Area scene when he attended school at UC Berkeley. For this 1975 performance in San Francisco, he would've attracted the folk audience who was familiar with his groundbreaking early work, as well as the new following he'd found among younger listeners drawn to the sound of prog-folk by Pentangle, Fairport Convention and, to some degree, Traffic - bands British in origin but, like Fahey, inspired by traditional material.
He opens his Great American set with "Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania/Alabama Border," a staple from his '60s repertoire plucked from the early album, Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes, which first brought him toward wider recognition. The crowd is audibly appreciative and a good rapport is established despite his impenetrable demeanor; indeed, Fahey barely says a word throughout the set.
"In Christ There is No East or West" is Fahey's interpretation of the traditional hymn. "Beverly," which would change shape through the years (as would many of Fahey's works) is from the 1973 concept album, After the Ball. He draws largely from his commercially ignored '70s repertoire - pieces like "Steamboat Gwine 'Round De Bend" and "Requiem For Mississippi John Hurt" from Of Rivers and Religion - as well as from his early '60s blues period.
With a hyped-up version of "Red Pony" (aka "Wine and Roses" from The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites), he turns the song into a tour de force. To bring the set home, Fahey tackles "Knoxville Blues" from 1971's America, which is followed by a brief tuning interlude (and what passes for stage patter) and finally "Lion" from The Yellow Princess, his late-'60s album for folk label Vanguard Records.
There is no doubt that Fahey was a virtuoso and an American musical icon; on this summer night in San Francisco, you could add "all-business" to the list as well, as he mesmerized the crowd without saying a word.