James Blackshaw's Sunshrine was originally issued in 2005 by the Digitalis Industries label in an edition of 1,000 CDs. A year later, Bo'Weavil re-released it on vinyl as half of a double album that also included his first recording, Celeste. That pressing was limited to 525 copies and sold out quickly. Blackshaw was garnering a small but very dedicated following to be sure. His earlier recordings had been reviewed in The Wire and in Signal to Noise, and were circulated by word of mouth and on dubbed CD-Rs for two years. Blackshaw was introduced to American shores via the Cloud of Unknowing album in 2007, thanks to the great ears over at New York's Tompkins Square imprint. The label has undertaken a great labor of love in providing the American releases of Blackshaw's back catalog: this is the third and final entry in that series on CD. Sunshrine is the shortest of Blackshaw's early recordings. It is comprised of two tracks; the title piece at 26 and a half minutes and "Skylark Herald's Dawn," a beautiful little sketch that lasts just a bit over three minutes. Call it a mini-album, a long EP, whatever; the title track is perhaps the single most stunning piece of music Blackshaw released up to Cloud of Unknowing (yes, 2006's O True Believers album on Important notwithstanding). Blackshaw plays both six- and 12-string guitars on "Sunshrine," and an Indian sarod, harmonium, organ, bells, and bowed cymbals as well. The track is pristinely recorded and is developed, as his previous works had been, by combining modal notions of Indian raga with long drones juxtaposed against various melodies and fluctuating rhythmic pulses and dynamic textures.
Blackshaw has been compared to many other guitarists, from Bert Jansch and John Fahey to Davy Graham and Leo Kottke, but none of that matters anymore. He has his own method of playing that was no doubt influenced by many preceding players, but he has developed a telltale style that, no matter what he's playing, you know it is his signature. Technique be damned -- though he has boatloads -- it's the spirit of the things he records that makes him so special. This piece, which unfolds slowly at first (the guitar doesn't enter for the first two minutes), picks up in rhythmic intensity and shifting lyric lines played against the drone strings, and then vanishes altogether for a bit as the sounds of rubbed bowed cymbals, bells, and sarod enter; open tones on a bottom-scale bass note on the organ provide a foundation for an ecstatic climb through the heavens into the emptiness of space beyond. It's almost frightening, but as the organ opens up, adding more notes to form a single chord, and then a second one, the bells' tone seems to change to one of expectancy. They seem outside of emptiness rather than its arbiter. They offer an entry way for the organ and an added harmonium drone as an arrival of some kind -- it's some other routed sound possibility into the listener's own world, and it all connects up wondrously when "Skylark Herald's Dawn" brings the listener back to the Earth with a single six-string guitar offering, and then, finally, into silence. Sunshrine is a deeply moving work that is deceptively experimental at its heart, while remaining wholly and perfectly accessible on the surface.