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John Fahey: The Great San Bernadino Birthday Party

Derek Taylor By

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Relatively few musicians can lay claim to creating an entire school of music. John Fahey is among the number who can though his reclusive nature has often been at odds with the accompanying celebrity his earlier innovations engendered. Fahey gathered the seemingly disparate genres of European classical, country blues, religious music and even free improvisation, and brewed them into his own alchemical mead called American Primitive. Central to the early incarnations of his signature style was the steel string acoustic guitar. Under Fahey’s adroit manipulation the instrument became a doorway to Empyrean worlds usually shaded ever so slightly by a dark encroaching gloom. A string of influential, if often hard to come by, recordings followed his self-produced debut The Legend of Blind Joe Death, but this disc, his fourth, was his most experimental to date.

The album is essentially a hodgepodge of pieces culled from Fahey’s tape files. The sprawling title track takes the patchwork quilt concept to a logical extreme comprising a series of improvisations Fahey spliced together after the fact into a composite nineteen-minute fantasia. Over it’s duration Fahey’s formidable fretwork, which moves from precise picking to haunting slide guitar, is bent and transmogrified into an emotive cascade reflecting very little of the festive sentiments of the title. Other tunes take the avant-garde mantle further. “Knott’s Berry Farm” tinkers solemnly with temporal elements finding Fahey playing a rustic theme only to later run the melody back in looped tape form. The rendering of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is even more unhinged. In the opening minutes Fahey’s brittle bass string strumming bounces off an disconnected undercurrent of church organ chords devised by the enigmatic Flea.

The ominously titled “Guitar Excursions Into the Unknown” juggles eerie atonality with skeletal string figures before a final far flung leap into an abruptly opening harmonic void. Liner scribe Bill Meyer makes comparisons of Fahey’s work on this piece to that of Derek Bailey, but these associations seem something of a stretch to me. “900 Miles” sounds like an unearthed outtake from one of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns and captures all the desolate spaciousness of an Ennio Morricone arrangement with only flute and guitar. Fahey and McLean meld in a chugging rhythm and vaporous melody, wending a way through the cactus-dappled hills to some undisclosed destination. Indian veena (a variant of the sitar) crops up on the multi-sectional “Sail Away Ladies” making for an odd mixture of Eastern and Western modalities. Ending with a fairly straight reading of “Oh Come. Oh Come Emanuel” Fahey signs off on a typically ambiguous note. All of Fahey’s recordings are well worth investigating, but for listeners hungry to hear him at his most chimerical and quixotic this is the place to start.


Track Listing: The Great San Bernadino Birthday Party/ Knott

Personnel: John Fahey- guitar; Nancy McLean- flute; Flea- organ; Mysterious Al Wilson- veena. Recorded: 1962-66.

Title: The Great San Bernadino Birthday Party | Year Released: 2000 | Record Label: Takoma


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