Various Artists

Thousand Incarnations of the Rose: American Primitive Guitar & Banjo

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The American Primitive/Guitar Soli "movement" got a kick start in 1994 when Rhino issued Return of the Repressed: The John Fahey Anthology. It created so much interest that Fahey began playing music festivals and shows as a headliner again. Meanwhile, younger players like Jack Rose and compilation producer Glenn Jones, among others long obsessed with this music, found more opportunities to tour and record.

The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose: American Primitive Guitar 1963-1974 was compiled to coincide with the first annual festival of the same name held in John Fahey's hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland in 2018. This is one of, if not the, most authoritative overviews of the original scene and its players.

In his copious, beautifully written liner notes -- with full track annotations -- Jones makes his case that the players of the American Primitive school were largely self-taught, like the primitive artists of the 18th through 20th centuries. Indeed, it may have been Ed Denson, Fahey's business partner in Takoma Records, who coined the term when comparing the guitarist's music to the work of 19th century primitive painter Henri Rousseau. Jones has assembled a historical document to be enjoyed not just admired: The music is sequenced aesthetically rather than chronologically. It rightly kicks off and ends with Fahey, but the pieces on offer as bookends are "Night Train to Valhalla" and "The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California" from 1967's brilliant Days Have Gone By rather than Blind Joe Death. Fahey's other selection here is "On the Banks of the Owchita" from Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites from the same year. Leo Kottke also appears with two selections from 1974's Leo Kottke, John Fahey & Peter Lang on Takoma. (The latter is also here with "When Kings Come Home" from the same album.) Two tracks by Peter Walker, "April in Cambridge" and "Gypsy Song," reveal that the American Primitive school was not just for steel-string guitars -- he plays a nylon-string on the latter in flamenco style. He and others in the American Primitive school -- like Robbie Basho (whose nearly 14-minute title cut is here) -- were deeply influenced by Indian raga and studied with master musician Ali Akbar Khan. The other "big" name in this collection is Sandy Bull's; his banjo rendition bluegrass nugget "Little Maggie" is a set highlight. George Stavis' long "Winterland Doldrums" is another banjo tune that melds bluegrass, Celtic folk, raga, and blues. Two selections each by Harry Taussig and Max Ochs (taken from the Takoma sampler Contemporary Guitar Spring '67) are balanced by relative '70s Takoma obscurities by Fred Gerlach ("Eyrie") and Billy Faier ("Longhorn Express"), which add balance and depth to the set. The music is uniformly excellent and the package -- with gorgeous art by Drew Christie -- is insanely attractive (especially the double LP). The only complaint is that sound quality is not equal across the board, but it's a small one. This set is essential for anyone even remotely interested in American Primitive guitar and banjo, whether it be a newcomer or longtime fan.

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