While everyone has been pre-occupied with the exponential increase in celebrity deaths, the last few years have also conversely opened up an intriguing sub-genre of musicians who, while not necessarily staring death in the face, are accepting old age with a grace and stoicism we have not had the opportunity to see before. These are artists whose music has often perpetuated down the years on old cassettes and MP3s very much through a network of like-minded fans, pre-Spotify and in the absence of CD re-releases.
Michael Chapman began his musical career playing jazz guitar in bands around his home town of Leeds before forging a progressive folk sound in the late ’60s. 50 (essentially showcasing 50 years of touring and released just after his 76th birthday) comprises seven re-workings plus three new compositions, the familiarity of some of the melodies a welcome delicacy alongside the gruff, weather-worn vocals of an old man. But this is by no means a downer album. With a full band in tow the kinetic, collaborative nature of tracks like ‘Sometimes You Just Drive’ and ‘A Spanish Incident‘ maintain a youthful exuberance for expression and experimentation while Bridget St John’s shimmering counter-vocals add an ethereal charm to the reverb-drenched guitars.
Produced by Steve Gunn who also contributes many of the subtle guitar solos, within the walled garden of 50 there is a crispness of playing (it sounds incredible on headphones) and simplicity of style. Harking back to obvious comparative pieces by John Fahey and the ubiquitous Solid Air, 50 is an essential addition to this canon. But it wouldn’t be out of place alongside Fuzzy-era Grant Lee Buffalo either or, vocally, Willy Mason, while musically, hints of Tim Buckley and Neil Young also persist. In fact, the multitude of influences, and fluidity of guitar playing without losing musical direction is impressive; the songs are often six minutes plus concentrating as much on the musicianship as the lyrical content; the trademark acoustic feedback style and liberal use of rolling country licks juxtaposed with the delicate timbre of Chapman’s voice. That’s not to suggest it’s a producer’s album (although it is immaculately produced).
On ‘The Mallard‘ the gentle blues guitar shivers in dewy goodness, while ‘Memphis In Winter‘ blossoms into Spring despite its “passed the end of nowhere” sentiment. Only ‘Money Trouble‘, with its forced group harmony, and ‘Falling From Grace‘ are steeped in an early evening shade as they bring the second half of the album down somewhat. The digital and CD issues end with ‘Rosh Pina‘ and ‘Navigation‘, both almost completely instrumental, sparser and both more lightweight than the rest of the album (and making the eight track vinyl issue seem even more essential). However elsewhere ‘That Time Of Night‘ and ‘The Prospector‘ continue the loose Buckley/Young theme and both are standout tracks.
So while perhaps not the late career classic one might almost feel obliged to review, 50 adds a welcome ellipsis to an astonishing career of a musician who has not only tackled a myriad of genres but has also embraced (and continues to) the changes and developments of the modern music era…
50 is out now on Paradise Of Bachelors.