The Upshot: Five decades on, the guitar virtuosos revisits worn-in groves and tests some new ones, demonstrating his resonance with a younger generation of folk interpreters while showcasing a connection with a contemporary icon.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Michael Chapman celebrates 50 years of making music and touring here, dusting off some old songs, writing a few new ones, and inviting a gang of new jack American Primitives (Steve Gunn, Nathan Bowles, James Elkington, Jimmy SeiTang) and one 1970s folk contemporary (Bridget St. John) from the admirers’ circle into the studio. Now in his 70s, Chapman sings with some authority about all the things you give up for a life in music – a settled abode (“Sometimes You Just Drive”), a late-model vehicle (“Spanish Incident”), a working relationship (“Falling from Grace”) and cold hard wherewithal (“Money Troubles”). And yet, surrounded by younger and contemporary peers, in a translucent mesh of jangling, tangling guitar/bass/banjo tones, he makes a case for the difficult path he’s chosen. “You know I don’t scare easy… but I do get scared,” he rasps on the superlative “That Time of the Night” (last heard covered by Lucinda Williams on the Oh Michael What Have You Done? tribute album and before that on 2008’s Time Past and Passing). The lilt in the line pulls the tune out of the darkness, the massed guitars and hushed group vocals bring shivering into the light.
Steve Gunn produced 50 and his presence and influence shows best in “The Prospector,” an older tune first recorded for 1979’s Life on the Ceiling and covered, rather thrillingly, by Maddy Prior on the Oh Michael compilation. It’s a Spoon River Anthology-esque view of small town life, with cameos by the hopeful prospector, ruddy farmer, the hard-drinking, bitterly disappointed school teacher. Chapman describes them with a line or two, his grizzled voice carrying sympathy but no sentiment, before moving on. The kicker, though, is in the very Gunn-like interleaving of electric and acoustic instruments which flare into Crazy Horse-style rockery, distorted and glorious.
Bridget St. John also makes a profound impact on the disc, accompanying her long-time friend and collaborator with soft husky counterparts that are as weathered and elemental, in their own way, as Chapman’s voice. She is very fine on the lovely “Mallard,” weaving in and around Chapman in the verse with a kind of heart-breaking tenderness and rue, but also light and frolicsome on the all-hands “Money Trouble.” Her work is subtle but integral; you notice it only gradually, but it becomes, over time, one of the best parts of the music.
Much of Chapman’s career has, of course, been solitary, traveling from gig to gig with little more than a guitar. “Memphis in Winter” shows this side of him, a dexterous, intricate interplay of blues guitar holding down the music, Chapman’s desolate spoken-song carrying the narrative. It is spare and devastating.
Coming five decades into a singular career, 50 is, surprisingly not a bad place to start. It revisits worn-in groves and tests some new ones. It demonstrates Chapman’s resonance with a younger generation of folk interpreters while showcasing a connection with a contemporary icon. There’s a joy in the big group numbers, as the guitars pile on, and the vocals swell, and the tunes fill up with sounds. Chapman’s songs range from bleak to wryly humorous, but they’re dark and lonely at the center, and it’s a pleasure to hear him in such good company, for once, and not alone.
DOWNLOAD: “The Prospector” “Memphis in Winter” “That Time of Night”