Sandy Bull - "Memphis, TN" (Still Valentine’Äôs Day 1969)
The cusp of the 1960s was a particularly populous time for experimental guitarists. Droves of bold plectrists picked up instruments and plugged them in with the express purpose of seeing how far out they could take things. Still Valentine’s Day, 1969 brings to light a seminal work by one of the fraternity’s tragic figures. Today, Sandy Bull’s name-dropping cachet hardly holds a candle to Fahey’s, but back when these concerts were recorded his nomadic creativity took him to places that could easily be considered through the looking glass of conventional guitar technique.
Bull holds court with an unfamiliar electric axe and amp, his regular rig having been misplaced. Looped ribbons of reverb lace his riffs resulting in raga-like striations, sort of a distorted tamboura and sitar effect. The sets were recorded hot, with the tonal muscle of Bull’s rippling patterns routinely threatening to overwhelm the mics in numerous spots. Programmatically, the music is all over the map starting with a phosphorescent rendition of Bach’s “Bouree” that sounds like an outtake from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Two melodic oud improvisations expose convincing Middle Eastern interests. “No Deposit, No Return Blues” refracts Fahey through a resonating prism of electricity; bright droplets of reverb collecting on the coruscating aural shoal conjured by quivering strings.
Bull makes use of pre-recorded accompaniment with varying success. The reading of Luis Bonfa’s “Mahana de Carnival” splits at the seams in several places, Bull’s strong oud strumming breaking off from an intrusive and lo-fi rhythm track of rhythm guitar, electric bass, scraper and cowbell. He fares better on a lysergic version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, TN.” The background tape here is in even worse shape, but the familiar locomotive rock riff bleeds through no matter how far afield Bull strays in his reverb-saturated interpolations. The result is a beautiful blend of the colloquial and bizarre.
On the closing “Electric Blend 2,” the waves of reverb oscillate from sandpapery to shimmery, pocked by eruptions of granulated feedback. A hi-hat cymbal clicks away just beneath the swirling amplified surface, marking a metronomic time that almost seems superfluous. Here and elsewhere, protean kernels of guitarists ranging from Neil Young and Ry Cooder to David Gilmour and Loren Conners rise and recede. Bull’s name may not be much more than a footnote in the formal history books, but these recordings illustrate the very real sphere of influence his music holds on scores of better-known players. It’s also an enthralling listen, blemishes and all.