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Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006 01:00 am

Blind Joe Death lives

I Am the Resurrection isn’t your typical tribute album.

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Various Artists I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey (Vanguard)
Is it wrong to look a tribute album in the mouth? It seems nasty, I know, to compare well-meaning musicians to gasbag grandees hogging the dais at a televised funeral (R.I.P., Coretta Scott King), but let’s face it: Are the assembled homage-payers truly interested in honoring the honoree, or are they just hitching a ride on a convenient passing coffin? Would the tribute-receiver be better served if the tribute-bestowers simply urged all of their friends and fans to buy the poor dead dude’s albums and hear for themselves what makes it so great? Put those cynical questions to rest for now, because I Am the Resurrection, a new tribute to John Fahey, is not your typical tribute album. First, the contributors all have some kind of legitimate connection to the man, his music, or both. Second, the contributors understand that Fahey’s genius cannot be replicated, only reimagined. They use his music as a springboard, not as an end in itself, which is precisely what Fahey did with his own influences, taking the blues-based fingerpicked stylings of early mentors such as Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt into new realms of virtuosity, infusing their backwoods incantations with compositional elements inspired by Charles Ives, Béla Bartók, Albert Ayler, Indian raga, and musique concrète. Fahey’s music was a passel of paradoxes, at once intricate and minimalist, sophisticated and primitive. The body of work that he left behind — almost 40 albums recorded over about 40 years — remains hugely influential, if unjustly neglected. From the classic Takoma recordings of the ’60s to the abstract sound-collages of his later years, Fahey’s contributions to American culture have been so widely disseminated that many of his heirs, one suspects, have never heard Fahey firsthand. In its eclecticism and scope, the lineup of talent on Resurrection shows the great man’s range. Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, who toured with Fahey in the late ’90s, combines birdsong, fragments of a Nation of Islam sermon, and ambient noises recorded from the Brooklyn Bridge to re-create a track from Fahey’s soon-to-be-reissued 1968 album, The Yellow Princess; by borrowing Fahey’s approach rather than meticulously reproducing his every note, he shows that Fahey’s music is relevant today, not just a before-its-time relic from some alternative-tuning canon. Giant Sand frontman Howe Gelb tackles “My Grandfather’s Clock,” transposing its rickety, antiquarian whimsy into a medium both old (he plays it on an 1888 upright piano) and new (the original was written for solo acoustic guitar). As Gelb observes in the liner notes, Fahey could “play guitar like a piano player, which I relate to from playing the piano like a guitar player.” M. Ward, who also produced the disc, offers a too-brief take on “Bean Vine Blues #2,” an unlikely mash-up of sludgy electrified rock and giddy ragtime. College-rock poster boy Sufjan Stevens transforms “Commemorative Transfiguration & Communion at Magruder Park” into a minisymphony replete with oboe, flute, recorders, triangles, and choirboy vocals. A compulsive researcher (cf. Illinois), Stevens traced Fahey’s melodic motifs to their original liturgical roots, slyly incorporating traces of the source material into the finished product in much the same way that Fahey parlayed his folklorist training (cf. his seminal dissertation on Charlie Patton) into innovative uses of his own. Other highlights include cuts by Boston-based post-rockers Cul de Sac, who had the honor of playing with Fahey on The Epiphany of Glenn Jones; Calexico, whose version of “Dance of Death” is predictably spooky and sublime; and Currituck Co., whose medley of “Requiem for John Hurt” and “Jaya Shiva Shankarah” is avant-Delta drone of the highest order. Somewhere, let’s hope, Blind Joe Death is smiling.
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