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John Fahey - The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick

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Artist: John Fahey

Album: The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick

Label: Water

Review date: Jan. 4, 2005

In his later years, John Fahey might have given this album a different title – maybe The Great Albatross Hung Around My Neck. Recorded in concert at San Francisco’s Matrix in 1968 and at an undetermined location about a year later, this is the kind of stuff that made Fahey’s music so well loved, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that he spent most of his late career excoriating. I can see why; what artist wants to compete with their own near-perfect early work? Spitting this music back out jukebox style would have been technically difficult and artistically smothering, yet it’s so sonically and emotionally stirring, so easy to love, that one can hardly blame the fans for wanting to hear it over and over. Personally, no matter how much I admire Fahey’s determination to keep his creativity alive and appreciate some of what came out of that effort, I can’t get enough of this old stuff. Fahey, on the other hand, had to move on. So perhaps it is just as well that The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick came out posthumously, thereby guarding Fahey from the stress of being dogged once more by past accomplishments and his fans from the spectacle of the man dogging out the music they love.

And my, this is lovely music. “Requiem For Mississippi John Hurt” overflows with triumph and joy, the opening of “When The Catfish Is In Bloom” is so rich and regal you want to put your hand over your heart. And attractively strange; the midsection of the slide exercise “Dance Of The Inhabitants Of The Palace Of King Philip XIV Of Spain” seems to fall into itself, melt, then reconstitute with a jaunty resumption of the theme.

The set isn’t technically perfect. To skirt a recording glitch, “Catfish” fades in the middle, and there are several spots where the guitarist’s heavy hand drives the bass registers into the red. But Fahey was never about technical perfection anyway; the song and the performance were always more important. This record, made just after his twin masterworks for Vanguard, does capture him at a peak of instrumental skill. His bass thumb picking is sturdy enough to move stone, his slide playing fluid and exquisite, and the recording does a good job of capturing his resonant tone. The splendid packaging does the music justice. A silver-inked image of Fahey playing lap steel emerges from the black wallet like a ghost of memory, the enclosed booklet includes some comic photos of Fahey martialling a parade of tortoises, and producer Glenn Jones weighs in with another chapter in the Melvillian saga of his relationship with the man and his music. This material might have weighed heavily upon Fahey, but it’ll lighten the life of any appreciator of his music.

By Bill Meyer

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