Various Artists: Tompkins Square A Raga for Peter Walker

[Tompkins Square; 2006]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: folk, acoustic guitar, psych folk
Others: Robbie Basho

In the late 1960s, Peter Walker was racking up cultural capital left and right. His two albums for Vanguard, Rainy Day Raga (1967) and Second Poem to Karmela or, Gypsies Are Important (1969), established him as one of America's finest young acoustic guitarists, the former's title track even becoming a minor hit. Walker's music resonated most strongly among countercultural folkies; his network included Bruce Langhorne, Karen Dalton, Fred Neil, Joan Baez, and Lowell George. Timothy Leary was particularly attuned to the kinship between Walker's work and the era's subversive zeitgeist, inviting the musician to play at his notorious acid parties. His songs channeled much more than third eye-opening mania, though: a true appreciation for form coursed through those early albums. Walker generated through his art a compelling conversation between American and Indian folk conventions, studying under raga masters Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan and applying their approaches to the populist sounds heard throughout Greenwich Village.

In the 1970s, Walker would continue to expand his musical vocabulary and mingle with other artists. He quit recording, however, and sunk into obscurity over time. His legacy and influence lived on through generations of experimental guitarists, but many listeners are only familiar with his like-minded contemporaries — Sandy Bull, Robbie Basho, and John Fahey.

Now Tompkins Square remind us once again that artists do not stop creating when they refrain from presenting themselves to the public. A Raga for Peter Walker presents four new pieces by its title subject, bringing us proles up to speed with him just as the label's Imaginational Anthem compilations updated us on recent development from other long dormant players like Peter Lang. Six Walker acolytes complement our main man's contributions with original compositions of their own. Think of it as Music from and Inspired by Peter Walker.

Age hasn't eroded Walker's songwriting skills one bit. Each of his tracks develop a concise, cascading theme in roughly three minutes, offering too much textural complexity and too many arresting rhythmic shifts to feel like mere sketches, but remaining humble and amiably single-minded. Sitar and tabla accompaniment gives Walker's chiming bottom-string picking the effect of a raga sound wall, while his melodies swoop and soar with the gusto of vintage Iron Maiden riffs (seriously!). This marriage of intense, meditative layers and fist-in-the-air compositional meat makes for rich listening.

The other musicians ape Walker's dense Indian backdrops but ultimately take their songs in directions we've come to expect. Jack Rose's live rendition of "Cathedral et Chartres II" owes as much to Fahey's Appalachian ruminations as it does to Walker's muse, though its lump-in-the-throat lyricism could come only from its composer. British youngster James Blackshaw also gives us a concert recording. Like much of his material, "Spiraling Skeleton Memorial" glistens with articulate chords and shimmering notes but finds itself caught in a thematic cul-de-sac midway through, never quite delivering on the promise of its opening strains. Greg Davis' "Truly We Dwell in Happiness" does the opposite, transforming a formless but pleasant enough digital bath into a verdant electro-acoustic vista. The album veers into mood music territory again during Steffen Basho-Junghans' "Blue Mountain Raga." Here the German guitarist flirts with flowery Windham Hill-isms, as he's apt to do; fortunately, his distinctive, almost jazzy tone and penchant for stunning, labyrinthine progressions salvages the cut. On the opposite end of the spectrum stews Thurston Moore's "Dirt Raga," a dirge that creates texture through noise rather than gentle finger picking. The only true surprise is Shawn David McMillen's selection. His recent Catfish album deals in drone and disintegration, but "Black Drink" travels in a deliberate narrative flow. Together, these six songs comprise a body of work that is in no way overshadowed by the new recordings it inspired.

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