The Family Vineyard label, which has done consistently great work with reissues of little known and cult figures, has certainly taken the macro-view when it comes to the accumulated work of guitarist Loren MazzaCane Connors. After Ecstatic Yod issued the massive four-disc box set of Unaccompanied Acoustic Guitar Improvisations, Vols. 1-9: 1979-1980 in 1999, the door was open to focus on his other work, which is, admittedly, voluminous. First FV released the brilliantly compiled Night Through: Singles and Collected Works 1976-2004 in 2006. In 2007, they decided to focus more thematically by releasing this gorgeous double-disc set, mysteriously titled As Roses Bow: Collected Airs 1992-2002. The term "airs," when used as a verb, especially in relation to music, is defined as a solo, a song, or an aria. There are 43 such pieces here, considered by Connors to be his complete airs. Tracks are culled from recordings originally issued on different labels and albums, as well as singles, split singles, and even four previously unissued airs; they appeared on everything from Moonyean from Road Cone, Evangeline, Calloden Harvest, the Table of the Elements double-disc Sails, of course the original Airs album on Road Cone, and the more obscure St. Vincent's Newsboy Home. Disc one opens with four tracks from Hell's Kitchen Park, released on Black Label in 1993. "An Air," as with many of the cuts here, was adapted from the folk repertoire of Turlough O'Carolan's airs, as well as his other Irish ballads. That said, they are read through Connors' singular approach to the blues. Strained through them, not mashed up against them. This instrumental is followed by "Child" and sung by Connors' long-time musical and life partner Suzanne Langille. That haunted reverie that creeps into so much of his work is borne out in the grain of her voice as much as it is the guitar. This nearly bleeds into "Sorrow in the House," which underscores the meaning of the previous song and is encapsulated with Langille again on "St. Brigid's Air." The stage is set for the next 42 minutes.
Most of these pieces are short; the longest just over three minutes on disc one. But this set is more than a collection, it is woven together so conceptually as to reflect a history that is far bigger than Connors. These are the previously unheard, unnamed voices of the inhabitants of a North American history that has been covered over; its losses highlighted, underscored, and sweetly sung in the lonely moan of that electric guitar along with Langille's vocals. They are poetic in their restraint, melodic in their presentation, and so utterly singular that they even stand apart from Connors' own work, which often concerns itself with much more open conceptions. These are in a fashion, folk songs, but rather than be shared and transformed literally, they become both a commentary on and a future consideration for future emotional resonance that is shared among listeners. It's the best collection of Connors' oeuvre yet, and provides for an excellent introduction to his catalog for novices intimidated by the sheer volume of his work. A quick mention on sound quality should be noted as well: there is some real "hiss" in these recordings. The fact that Connors usually records in primitive circumstances is immaterial. As the discs play, that emptiness and noise reflects the ambience of the rooms he cut these sides in, and the ghostliness of his presentation. In that way, both discs add up to a seamless whole. The editing is brilliant, seamless. The more pronounced folk melodies of the second disc actually seem to emerge from the first and the "voices" become clearer, articulate themselves with a bit more force; though all of this music is gentle, it's impossible to ignore. In sum, As Roses Bow is an underscored statement of the nature of song in Connors' work. When juxtaposed against virtually everything else he's done, it becomes clear that while the Delta blues may be the root for his improvisations and approaches to playing the guitar, that sound is impossible to separate from this; they are entwined like lovers as one body, full disparate particulars that complement one another so seamlessly they emerge as something else altogether. And one more thing: given how deeply rooted these tunes are in traditional music, director Martin Scorsese blew it by not hiring Connors to work on the score and soundtrack for the film Gangs of New York. Had some of this music accompanied some of those scenes, that picture would have been forever etched into the very consciousness of every person who saw it. As Roses Bow: Collected Airs 1992-2002 is more than worthy: it is essential.