John Fahey – Tramps (New York City, NY)
“How long can I remain legendary?” John Fahey queried to both himself and his audience in response to his invisible emcee’s intro. Appearing less frazzled and more affable than in his last visit here almost a year ago, Fahey regarded the well-packed assembly from behind the now-trademark secondhand prescription shades, and seated himself to strap on his rented…Stratocaster?
John Fahey, America’s steel-string acoustic maestro, gone electric. “Oh yeah, it’s all I use now,” he commented after the show, citing its inevitable rentability in any town and thus foregoing baggage travel worries. Well, anyone familiar with the recent sharp banking movements in his output, ones with the kind of g-force that would mush the skull of a blander musician into his headrest and out of the business, should be prepared for anything. Through nearly 40 years of highly original playing, the man simply has that uncanny knack to remain on the cutting edge, the generations passing into heaps.
He based the bulk of his set on long suites of material reminiscent of the “The Voice Of The Turtle”. Employing a digital delay, his sound at first seemed like a textural take on Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack with many pauses; but then the delay’s battery went, filtering the music through an increasing wave of amplifier crackle. The less initiated rustled nervously at their tables, but the cognoscenti grinned and Fahey remained unperturbed, even pleased. He has always been an adventurer-as-sound-sculptor. The effect was, as one wag bellowed in approval, “instant 78 sound!”
Fahey then bawled for “HELP!” until a techie delivered another 9-volt, leaving the performer to begin one of his “stories.” The delay was revived, and another meditation began. This ended with a flair of unmeditative panache, which snapped his high E. “I don’t play very well with only five strings,” Fahey knowingly moaned to invoke the techie yet again for winding and tuning, allowing us to hear a great tale concerning Big Joe Williams, his ten-or-something-stringed guitar, and a concert Fahey had attended. It seems that Big Joe broke one of his in mid-set and repaired the situation by producing a hand drill to gouge yet another hole beneath his bridge for the replacement, explaining that “this was something I learned in Mississippi.” “I saw it! I was there!” John declared, adding aside, “and I never saw anything like that in Mississippi.”
The evening concluded with two bossa nova stylings, to which the Strat’s tone adapted well. Fahey mentioned that the last was an original and expressed puzzlement that his instructor in the form had felt it improper for Fahey to compose in the idiom. Ethnically? Psychiatrically? “Why not me?” This second question posed, he proceeded with proof that some teachers deserved to be paid with falling masonry.