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V/A - I Am The Resurrection: A Tribute To John Fahey

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Artist: V/A

Album: I Am The Resurrection: A Tribute To John Fahey

Label: Vanguard

Review date: Feb. 6, 2006

John Fahey's been dead for five years. In one respect, his legacy has never seemed better off; look at the proliferation of devotees furthering his concept of the steel-stringed acoustic guitar as a pocket orchestra and the American folk tradition as foundational material for fantasias. But one wonders if he'd agree. The guitarist, composer, and folkloric synthesist was never one to tolerate efforts to idolize or idealize him (see the liner notes to The Epiphany of Glenn Jones), and he never cared for any project so much as his next one. This tribute record, due to be released on the anniversary of his passing, would likely have been a burr under his saddle, if for no other reason than that it ignores the last 25 years of his career.

The contributors to this set, which was compiled by M. Ward, stick mostly to material from his early Takoma and Vanguard efforts; the most recent composition covered here is "Jaya Shiva Shankara," which originally turned up on 1975's Old Fashioned Love. That's precisely the music that Fahey most disparaged during his later years, when he was most determined to escape the burden of his past in an effort to keep moving artistically. But his responsibility was to his muse, not his archive; one can sympathize with his need to escape the artistic millstone of enormous early achievement without sharing his disregard. So while it wouldn't have hurt if someone had had the respect and gumption to play such excellent late compositions as "Juana" or "Red Cross, Disciple of Christ Today," it's hard to assail the merits of the tunes selected here - they're all great. The performances? That's another matter. Some are quite good, either as reminders of Fahey's own greatness or because they offer new perspectives on familiar material; only a few are either inconsequential or downright bad.

Many of the players on I Am The Resurrection show the good judgment to not play their selections exactly like the originals; only Peter Case has the guts to go it alone on an acoustic guitar. To his credit, he turns in a solid performance of the stirring "When the Catfish is in Bloom." Devendra Banhart adds vibes to "Sligo River," but the performance feels like an afterthought. Others orchestrate more ambitiously. The Fruit Bats' opening gambit, "Death of the Clayton Peacock," uses martial drums, airy female vocals, and layers of guitars and banjos to recast Fahey's earthiest strut as a jaunty trifle. Pelt's acoustic trio arrangement uses clip-clopping banjo and droning bowed bass to amplify both the rustic amiability and sweeping grandeur of "Sunflower River Blues." It's one of the album's best tracks. Calexico's "Dance of Death" adds melodica, drums, vocals and plenty of reverb, recasting the melody so that it would fit right in on one of their own records. The album's one unqualified disaster is Sufjan Stevens' corny "Variation on 'Commemorative Transfiguration & Communion at Magruder Park,’" which bleeds the original's complex emotions and festoons it with massed recorders and Up With People vocals.

Other players plug in. Ward turns the antique rag "Bean Vine Blues #2" into a vulgar, toe-tapping boogie; it'd go down well late in one of his own sets, just before the encore, if the audience has had enough beer. Immerglück, Kaphan, Krummenacher, & Hanes' measured blues-rock treatment of "Joe Kirby Blues" and Currituck Co.'s tart medley "John Hurt Shiva Shankarah" are more meditative. Grandaddy puffs up "Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Philip XIV of Spain" with flatulent keyboards; the quartet Cul De Sac, who are the only participants that actually recorded with Fahey, use synthesizers to much better effect on their reprise of "The Portland Cement Factory of Monolith, CA." Robin Amos's electronics blasts scour the melody like a desert wind while the band stays the course.

Only Lee Ranaldo honors Fahey's avant side. "The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Brooklyn Bridge Version: The Coelocanth" sounds nothing like the original's collage of electronic noise, fife-and-drum field recordings, and the aforementioned bridge. Instead he uses a bridge from his own neck of the words and his own patented electric squall to suggest a previously unrecognized link between Fahey's adventures in musique concrete and Sonic Youth's own collage experiments.

By Bill Meyer

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