James Blackshaw Waking Into Sleep – Göteborg, 27.05.06

[Kning; 2007]

Styles: acoustic guitar composition
Others: Leo Kottke, Six Organs of Admittance, Glenn Jones, John Fahey

Britain’s James Blackshaw has been garnering critical accolades over the last couple of years for his “minimalist” guitarwork. I think it’s wrong to call him a minimalist. True, his records consist only of solo 12-string guitar pieces, but those pieces brim: notes, themes, and moods rain into the lengthy tracks until they overflow, tip over, or burst. He is not afraid of repetition, and then more repetition, but what he is repeating isn’t at all pared down: Waking into Sleep’s effusive, colorful patterns come back again and again, but to my ears, the end result is no more minimal than Panda Bear’s Person Pitch.

Blackshaw rides bold, repetitive bass parts that lend an Eastern, sitar-like feel to the otherwise rustic filigree he imparts via fancy trills, slides, and picking patterns. He works over his 12 strings with authority. His pieces are subtle but not delicate; he isn’t afraid to interrupt a flickering trance with a violent crash through the heart of the string bed or the sudden blooming of brushed harmonics.

“Sunshrine,” the 16-minute opener, is a characteristically rangy number that evinces Blackshaw’s mastery of multiple voices as well as his willingness to swap between them without creating smooth transitions. Some may chalk this up to clumsy composition; for me, Blackshaw’s aberrant gait invests the pieces with a vitality that is welcome in any work, but especially a live CD.

“Celeste I” opens in a morose mood but soon amasses momentum as it swivels around a minor-key bluegrass motif. I see snakes sprinting through heavy grass before a thunderstorm. There’s something furious and pregnant about it. Insistent, too: those bass notes stick around long enough that you have to reckon with them at some point; they either cast a bewitching, stormy spell, or they just become redundant.

One way or the other, Blackshaw’s effulgent music forces the listener to make decisions. There’s no hook to cherrypick off the top of the mix, no clever lyric to focus on; he either engulfs you or bores you. It takes a certain measure of arrogance to create such a confrontation. The refreshing beauty of Blackshaw’s work is that he also has the skill to pull it off.

1. Sunshrine
2. Celeste I
3. Transient Life in Twilight
4. Spiralling Skeleton Memorial

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