Chuck Johnson - "A Struggle, Not A Thought" (Beyond Berkeley Guitar)
Focusing on seven musicians currently working in northern California and the Bay Area, Beyond Berkeley Guitar offers a satisfying, seamless, but nonetheless variegated anthology of steel-string guitar voices in the American primitive genre.
As might be expected, there are plenty of rippling finger-style patterns to be heard here: The opening track, Aaron Sheppard’s “The Transmigration of the Old West,” is a beautifully modulated headlong flow of graceful tone and yearning chromaticism, with arpeggiated melodies pushing at the door of mystery, metaphysics and transcendence in the best tradition of the genre. Trevor Healy’s old Stella 12-string rings with strength and soul on the cycling, quietly hypnotic “Wrapped in Water.” Chuck Johnson’s “A Struggle, Not a Thought” is both pensive and dynamic, balancing sound and silence, and hinting at 20th-century classical techniques and methods. Lucas Bolton’s “Studies of the Oak as Pertaining to Druidic Rites of Passion” is a dark-toned flow of base and treble interplay, in places echoing the rhythmic strophes of medieval dance music.
Sean Smith, who curated the anthology and wrote the insightful liner notes, offers “Ourselves When We are Real,” a long suite-like composition and performance that bears Smith’s usual hallmarks of melodic/thematic elegance, poetic restraint and tonal/textural gorgeousness.
Two other long pieces stand out here; they follow journeys quite different from the rest. Richard Osborn’s “A Dream Of Distant Summer” begins gently, in an evocative raga-esque mood, then builds in complexity and energy, giving the exhilarating sense of music being discovered as it is played. Then there’s Ava Mendoza’s “Redwood Regional Park Blues: Between Hog and Grass.” Overdubbing with slightly-dirty-toned jazz box electric guitars, Mendoza unfurls a swing/blues epic of sometimes smooth, sometimes stuttering line and melody. In its blues-based expressionism and bravely exploratory, always-changing phrasing, it suggests something like the spirit of Lonnie Johnson finding voice in some surprising new ideas.