The new, so-called "freak" and "acid" folk boom has sufficiently bubbled up from underground. In addition to fanzines, Internet blogs, and forums, the mainstream music media, always looking for the next big thing, have looked at Devendra Banhart, Feathers, Joanna Newsom, White Magic, and many others with often positive, sometimes quizzical, or even cynical attention. That said, thankfully there have been those recordings from the past that have been unearthed once more from the tombs of collective -- and often record label -- memory for reassessment, often to rightfully deserved acclaim. They shed light on what the current era evolved from, consciously or not. Revenant's American Primitive music collections come to mind, as does the current interest in the career and recordings of Sandy Bull, John Fahey (who was a founder of Revenant), and Robbie Basho. On the other side of the pond, Bill Fay's Time of the Last Persecution, Simon Finn's Pass the Distance, Comus' and Fresh Maggots' debut recordings, and Welsh songwriter and singer Meic Stevens have also seen reissue and received praise. Fine groups, from Current 93 to the Polyphonic Spree, pay tribute to the psychedelic folk-ish music from the '50s, '60s, and '70s and liturgical music from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as musical traditions from all over the world. With all of that said, however, why would anyone be interested in a box set by a wandering musical group of Jesus People from the 1970s who traveled nomadically in a bus like a spiritual version of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters? Simply because it is some of the greatest music you've never heard.
The Christ Tree was released by New York's Trees Community in 1975 on their own, tiny Pomegranate imprint and has been officially reissued by Tim Renner's Dark Hollow and Hand/Eye labels with full cooperation and blessing from the still-living members of the Trees Community. It is an economically priced four-disc box set contained in a gorgeous foldout package (it folds into a cross, what else?). In addition to the original album, it contains a cassette-only release, A Portrait of Jesus Christ in Music, and part of a live show from 1974. The last two CDs are devoted to an astonishing concert recorded at the Cisterican Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky -- where the late Trappist monk and Christian mystic Thomas Merton lived and worked -- in April 1973. Musically, The Christ Tree is unlike anything else recorded before or since -- and that's not hyperbole. The Trees Community contained seven playing members. These seven people played some 80 musical instruments between them. Instruments included guitars, of course, but also sitars, tambouras, bagpipes, kalimbas, sanctus bells, harmoniums, marimbas, harps, oboes, whistles, horns, drums of all stripes, and involved a harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic amalgam of Balinese chant, American, English, and other Celtic folk music, Indian raga, Korean and Japanese folk music, Native American chant, modal music, Tibetan prayer song, polyphony, and many more. Much of The Christ Tree, and the subsequent sound of the Trees Community, was influenced in no small part by the adventurous and open vistas that the psychedelic era created, but it was never bogged down in its excesses. This music found here also includes degrees of improvisation and dissonance. Most importantly, the music made by the Trees Community was utterly unaffected and void of pretension. The spontaneity in these songs, whether they're psalms, original songs, liturgical chants, or wordless vocal pieces accompanied by complex and intersecting rhythms, was -- and in many ways, remains -- new.
While this seeming mishmash of styles and instruments may sound familiar to listeners the world over now who strive to fuse traditions together, the Trees Community wasn't attempting to experiment at all. It was of no interest to them to reveal anything about themselves but the shared revelation of a contemplative communal prayer life directed by their discovery of truth led by what they considered the revelation of the Holy Spirit. It makes no difference if you buy their argument; the music they made stands on its own. What made the Trees different than many similar Jesus People groups that sprung up revolution-style all over the West in the late '60s and early '70s was that they continually reached out into the world instead of isolating themselves and becoming a cult. Led by their late founder, William "Shippen" Lebzelter -- a television production consultant, theater designer, and writer -- the Trees Community looked, and more importantly listened to, other people and groups for fresh insight and for ways of not making similar mistakes. Conversely, he worked very hard not to be co-opted by institutional religious groups and to keep the Trees separate. They didn't fit neatly into any tradition, whether it was of evangelical, charismatic, liturgical, or social justice stripe. This nomadic, outsider manner of searching, traveling, and conducting their group life is revealed in, and indeed inseparable from, the music they created.
The Trees Community was created in New York City in 1970, making a home and temple in an abandoned loft. They had nightly discussions and study where any number of people, ranging from about ten to 40, attended, all of them seeking truth, many -- as admitted by the Trees themselves in their booklet -- coming from broken lives. This too is indicative of the Jesus Revolution that swept the country during the period. They became a committed group who eventually stabilized at seven. These seven -- more or less a member or two -- created the music you hear on these recordings. The identity was unique, the sound breathtaking; they claim -- and it's believable -- the sound grew out of group meditation and prayer. Perhaps the proof of that authenticity is that one need not believe in anything at all to be moved by it. One can range in age from two to 100 and perhaps be even intoxicated by the ever-outward sonic reach and appeal of the Trees Community in The Christ Tree and in their concerts. The group took to the road in 1971 at the suggestion of members Roger and Claudia Gumbiner when their loft was scheduled for demolition. The Gumbiners gave up their own apartment and paid for the initial bus the group traveled on for the next six years on their "Pilgrimage of No Destination." The recording was made on a return trip to New York. That said, the shows recorded in the box were recorded and performed before The Christ Tree was even recorded. That material was developed during travel, the road, when experiencing the kindness of strangers, and, of course, in performance. At the community's own admission, at the opening of disc four, they left New York as "prophets of doom," perhaps convinced they were in the last days -- much of the literature of the time, such as Hal Lindsey's incendiary and now laughable tome The Late Great Planet Earth, prophesied the end as just around the corner (sound familiar?). By the time they reached the Abbey of Gethsemani for the second time in 1974, they had relaxed, admitted their error, and considerably embraced the best of what liturgical, contemplative, monastic, charismatic, and tolerant evangelicalism had to offer. They acknowledged their mistakes and admitted they'd make more as "young Christians." From the literature of the founding desert fathers and the Philokalia of the Greek Orthodox Church, to C.S. Lewis and the prayer faith of many spiritual traditions, the Trees Community allowed their deepening Christianity to open their collective musical minds further.
The greatest musical examples on disc one are the three long psalms (numbers 42, 45, and 46) taking place at the beginning, middle, and end of The Christ Tree on disc one. Beginning with a tamboura's drone and a sitar's whine, acoustic guitars enter, whispering underneath, a flute creates a countermelody, and then the voices come from the ether. There are rarely vocal soloists on these recordings. Voices can be separated into male and female groups, but more often than not, the different vocal cadences are in shared harmony, from three to seven parts. These voices are staggered, contrapuntal, chanted, and practice recitative. "Psalm 42" is over 12 and a half minutes long and ranges across the vocal spectrum, from sweet, hymnody, Tibetan drone-prayer chant, to dissonant chanting, from blissful focus to confused questioning, as well as vocal techniques not unlike those of contemporaries Meredith Monk and Philip Glass, in his groundbreaking Einstein on the Beach, used. The listener is taken for a long journey right from the jump. And it doesn't let up. Whether it be in war whoops, plainchant, Chinese folk song, or Appalachian child balladry, the listener is glided along through the sound world of the Trees into a place that has never been encountered before, and that place is site specific to the listener -- no two people will hear this music in remotely the same way. When in the mostly instrumental "In the Parable of the Mustard Seed and Trees Chant" one is taken from Asian court melody to G'nawaan horn counterpoint to Native American ceremonial music to Eastern European folk song, something magical occurs: one's sense of time and space is displaced and the rest of the recording takes place as if in a dream, or other reality. No exaggeration is implied. In other words, as wildly divergent as these vocal and instrumental exercises were, they were rooted in the kind of discipline real musicians have, for sound, texture, and above all, space. The Trees Community -- especially in the earlier A Portrait of Jesus Christ in Music -- were unafraid of putting one kind of vocal style against a seemingly opposite harmonic instrumental scheme, and it seamlessly came together, as if they knew it would all the time. The wonder is how visionary it was, and how full it is of a kind of childlike faith in the goodness of the music itself as part of God's creation and revelation to humanity.
Certainly in the live recordings things are a bit rougher, but not much. This was not studio trickery, but inspiration, musical acumen, and instincts that were more often than not spot on. It's also true that listeners may be put off by the five- and six-minute talks at the beginning of both CDs three and four, where the Trees are speaking to the converted, a group of quiet and sometimes coughing monks. Their sincerity is beautiful, but in that speech, it is a bit over the top, as if they are trying to convey wisdom, when really they are conveying excitement. Besides, what is the "skip" button on the remote for? As may be expected, the quality of the recordings varies somewhat. The source tapes for this material had been moved around the country and sitting formant for the better part of three decades. In the case of A Portrait of Jesus Christ in Music, a cassette was used since no source tape could be located and cleaned up as well as possible. Yes, it's a little rough, but the performance isn't. The live material comes off surprisingly well at the end of disc one and the last two. Renner's efforts to make the material shine were for the most part very successful. There is a beautiful booklet accompanying the set. It includes the story of the Trees Community, biographies for each of the performing musicians past and present, a short essay by Tibet about his enthusiasm for this project, and Renner's own thoughtfully, humble essay about the birth and realization of the project. Perhaps his most telling remark is the best way to recommend this set: "This is my favorite album of all time . . . I knew from my first listen that this album and I had a future together. I never wanted my record label to be a reissue label, but I did always want to do one reissue, one great rare LP from the past, and I never knew what that was . . . until I heard The Christ Tree." If you are fortunate enough to encounter this collection, pay attention next time you listen to the very talented Polyphonic Spree, Feathers, Devendra, Ms. Newsom, or any of the other modern-day, "new" folk musicians. You will still enjoy what you are hearing from them, but your appreciation will be deepened as if seeing it through a wider prism. The Christ Tree and the music of the Trees Community may be from the past, but it rings clearly and loudly; it's as fresh, innocent, brave, and unaffected as it was the day it appeared. Its quiet power and the pleasure it brings is untouched by the passage of time.