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Nathan Salsburg - Affirmed

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Artist: Nathan Salsburg

Album: Affirmed

Label: No Quarter

Review date: Nov. 15, 2011

Nathan Salsburg makes intricate guitar figures sound uncomplicated and sunny. A veteran of Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem project, he picks with brio through a septet of front-porch blues originals (and one traditional cover). The notes fly thick and fast, landing with precision and a swaggering bit of swing, yet there is never any sense of hurry. Salsburg, who has worked as an archivist for the Alan Lomax project for more than a decade, and whose Root Hog or Die blog and radio program document historical picking styles, has clearly learned not just the technique but the pace of pre-automobile, pre-internet America. Whether bouncing merrily through buggy-trotting, country-lane evoking “Sought and Affirmed” or taking a more meditative turn in “Eight Belles Dreamed the Devil Was Dead,” Salsburg seems to have all the time in the world.

Salsburg was last heard earlier this year in Avos, a series of duets with The Zincs’ James Elkington, yet where that album plumbed shadowy minor keys and misty overtones, this one favors primary colors. Four of its compositions name-check famous race horses. The title track gives a nod to Affirmed, the last horse to win the triple crown. “New Bold Ruler’s Joys,” the track that made the Imaginational Anthem collection, dedicates its jaunty, quick-fingered maneuvers to Secretariat’s sire. And Eight Belles, a filly that came in second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby but was so badly injured that she had to be put down right there on the race track, gets two songs. The first, “Eight Belles Blues,” seems to be a placid, well-tempered meditation on equine life, the second, “Eight Belles Dreamed the Devil was Dead,” more ruminative.

Salsburg is often compared to John Fahey, but there is very little evidence here of Fahey’s bent for experimentation. These compositions are straight-forward, though not simple, eschewing recording tricks, instrument treatments, loops, pedals and odd tunings in its pursuit of traditional purity. Salsburg sings on one track, the P.G. Six-ish “False True Love,” but aside from that, it’s just a man and his guitar, a mic placed somewhere close by as he plays.

There’s also very little of the subliminal, the transcendence, the mysteries that artists like Jack Rose, Glenn Jones, Robbie Basho and others managed to coax from their guitar picking. These songs seem plain spoken and honest, warm and welcoming, yet ultimately human. There’s no trapdoor to other-ness beneath them, just the bounce of rhythm, the tricky interplay of fingers, the buoyant thread of melody. But if these songs are modest, human-scale accomplishments, they are, nonetheless, impressive. Salsburg works on a small, familiar canvas, but no less well for that.

By Jennifer Kelly

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