Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Davy Graham - Anthology: 1961-2007 Lost Tapes

Almost four years after Davy Graham's death, the folks at Les Cousins Music are still working not only to preserve his officially-recorded legacy, but also to expand the scope and depth of his output, making it clearer for those who weren't there why the guitarist was the undisputed king of the 1960's English folk revival.  Nostalgically packaged in a collage of images gleaned from Graham's personal scrapbook (and simultaneously displaying both spellings of the guitarist's first name he confoundingly vacillated between), this three-CD collection anthologizes no less than 54 tracks across more than 2 1/2 hours of unreleased recordings.  Count me in!

It's a fool's errand to attempt a track-by-track analysis of an anthology so deep, so I'll attempt to convey some general impressions and reference tracks where appropriate.  Having been a Davy Graham fan for several years, I think I'm finally starting to understand how, as Roy Harper says, Graham "never managed to turn his talent into a brand that people could go out and buy and enjoy," yet every other guitarist from the same time period and beyond cites Graham as a towering giant of the six-string.  After five years of absorbing Graham's studio output I'm still at a loss to recommend a single album of his that fully conveys and encompasses what was so revolutionary about his playing, and not having been there it's been hard to picture myself in that bright-eyed hopeful time and imagine myself at some bohemian party with Graham conjuring untold spirits out of an acoustic while everyone just sits and listens.  Enter this anthology, which as far as I've heard does the best job this side of After Hours at Hull University of recreating such a scene.  The sound quality (especially on the first two discs) is almost exclusively of home/bootleg quality and most of the performances are solo, with Graham positively shredding in front of small audiences as he sends jazz, folk, blues and "world music" (before such a term existed) through a blender and we get to hear what comes out.

Since it's mostly just an acoustic with or without vocals, the sound quality isn't much of a bother--if anything, it enhances the intimacy of the performances, which find Graham energetically blasting solo performances of many of the folk and blues songs found on his albums as well as never-before-heard tracks.  Throughout, his technique is astounding, transitioning as quickly as ever between lead and rhythm, melody and harmony, from style to style.  Somehow the setting's informality allows the guitarist's hard-won chops to shine brighter with none of the studio adornments meant to commercialize his sound, and we instead get to hear him exclaim "Ah, fuck" after some imperceptible mistakes during a lightning-fast take on Leadbelly's "Fannin Street" with nary a missed note, as well as a verbal introduction to his classic instrumental "Anji" (there are two versions here, along with an unreleased track and album highlight "Anji's Greek Cousin") that details how he wrote the tune.  While the live renditions of guitar-and-vocal folk/blues tunes present uniformly great guitar and often contain vocals that are superior to the studio versions, they also miss the mark when it comes to what made the guitarist unique--more than almost any other Graham album, this anthology conveys the strange alchemy that occurred between Graham's musical influences, his fingers and his guitar, and these discs present ample, undiluted evidence of what was possible when only these elements were on display.

Of the three discs, the third is probably the least essential, reflecting the diminishing returns that Graham's post-60's releases offer, yet it often sounds more vital than studio recordings from the same period.  Though Graham's lifestyle choices and age would gradually slow his playing and attenuate his already limited vocals, we still get some surprisingly good representations of the more delicate British folk, jazz, medieval-sounding instrumentals and world folk music explorations he continued to make through the 70's and beyond.  "The Gold Ring" shows his pull-off speed undiminished, "Sita Ram" and "Mevlut" pair his further eastern experiments with appropriate accompaniment, and "DeVisee Suite" shows a subtle, slower side to his playing that was all but absent in the early days.  The final late-period tracks remind us that we're summing up the career accomplishments and contributions of a distinctive force in 20th century popular music.  As with his 2007 swansong Broken Biscuits, the joy here comes less from marveling at jaw-dropping speed, but more from giving credit where it's due and appreciating that the man's muse was still active at the end.

While I still think it's impossible to recommend an accurate starting point for a prospective Davy Graham fan (it takes more than the average time investment to really "get" him as an artist), this anthology is a surprisingly worthy addition to even a modest Davy Graham collection.  Unlike so many retrospective collections, it manages (with the help of Graham's considerable skill and restlessness) to make familiar songs sound fresh and new songs sound immediate and relevant to the further-broadening portrait available of Graham as an artist. 

Get it here.


Chris said...

Great review. So much better than the Guardian's tepid review of this album. Love Davey. There's no one like him.

Also like that tune of yours ('Head in the Clouds') that you've posted on here. Very interesting.

Elliot Knapp said...

Thanks Chris! Been a big Davy Graham fan for a while now. Thanks for the compliment on my music, too...my new album's coming out in a couple weeks!