Fahey knew the blues. He eventually
published his academic thesis on Skip James and “re-discovered” real deal
bluesman Bukka White. He could also play
the guitar, combining a legit blues attack with an avant-garde harmonic
sensibility. Never a commercial
sensation, Fahey developed a cult following. The idiosyncratic guitar master consistently
defied arbitrary genre distinctions, as does Nels Cline (probably best known
for his work with Wilco). Despite their
stylistic differences, both musicians make an apt pairing in First Run Features’
Guitar Innovators, a theatrical double
feature of two mid-length documentaries opening this Friday in New York.
late Fahey’s chaotic life offers plenty of grist for James Cullingham’s In Search of Blind Joe Death: the Story of
John Fahey (trailer
here). The longer of the two films, Death surveys the guitarist’s life and
his prolific but under-distributed musical output. The artist who playfully adopted the “Blind
Joe Death” moniker had nearly as many distinctive creative periods as Picasso,
including a sojourn through the world of old school New Orleans jazz. Apparently, he had a rather traumatic
childhood, which Cullingham addresses briefly and diplomatically (rather
raising more questions than he answers).
However, he fully embraces Fahey’s image as an artistic eccentric,
including plenty of viewer friendly anecdotes as part of his portrait.
short animated interludes and talking head segments with The Who’s Pete Towsend
and Fonotone Records’ Joe Bussard, Death is
strong on biography, but is oddly stingy when it comes to the actual
music. It will convince viewers Fahey
was important and influential, but might not move a lot of CDs and downloads
for his heirs. Still, it represents a
rare cinematic fix for blues fans.
Okazaki’s Nels Cline Approximately personally
introduces viewers to the American experimental jazz and rock guitarist, but it
is not intended as an exhaustive study.
Instead, it captures Cline’s creative process in the studio with several
simpatico colleagues. The free
improvisation and electronic instrumentation of Cline’s group sounds worlds
removed from Fahey blues-roots music, but their choice of time-honored folk
songs like “Black is the Color” nicely parallels Fahey’s modernist approach to traditional
also recruits an enormously talented ensemble, including the unusually
versatile jazz trumpeter Ron Miles, who brings an In a Silent Way kind of vibe to the session. Violinist-vocalist Carla Kihlstedt also
sounds quite haunting on their dramatic rendition of “Color.” We also hear the more abstract side of Cline
when playing with keyboardist-programmer Yuka Honda (who also happens to be his
wife). At half hour, it should not overwhelm
aesthetically conventional ears, especially given the warm, handsome look of
the performance footage shot by cinematographer Dan Krauss at the storied Fantasy Studios.
documents a fascinating life, while Approximately records some striking
music in the making, but both films speak to each other in intriguing
ways. Shrewdly packaged by First Run,
both documentaries are highly recommended separately or together as the Guitar Innovators double bill, opening
this Friday (8/16) in New York at the Cinema Village.
Labels: Documentary, John Fahey, Nels Cline, Ron Miles