For such an influential and prolific guitarist, John Fahey has received surprisingly little popular recognition. A true innovator of acoustic guitar, John Fahey’s forceful fingerpicking style evokes a raw purity that is as American as Jay Ungar or Jimi Hendrix. His label, Takoma, has also helped jumpstart the careers of talented musicians such as Leo Kottke (who made an appearance at Toad’s last semester), as well as directly influencing musicians ranging from Jerry Douglas to Jimmy Page.
Primarily using solo acoustic guitar (excepting occasional forays into environmental sonority), Fahey creates a remarkably full, driving sound with a steely slide that makes his melodies really bite. Sometimes labeled as a folk guitarist, he draws from scores of varied music traditions, infusing Spanish, medieval, ragtime and jazz with bluesy riffs and the pure emotional energy that can only come from a solo performer and his beloved instrument.
As far as tribute albums go, “I Am the Resurrection” moves in a relatively bold direction with most of the covers. Tribute albums, such as last year’s Beatles homage “This Bird has Flown,” usually seem to be composed of some notable tracks interspersed among derivative re-recordings. “I am the Resurrection,” however, works hard to take John Fahey’s songs, not his arrangements, and try to capture his original spirit instead of replicating his style. Refreshing and exciting throughout, even the tracks that don’t stand well on their own are testament to the power of Fahey’s work.
The majority of these songs are played with full bands, and the result is a deconstruction and expansion of Fahey’s self-contained guitar playing. On Pelt’s “Sunflower River Blues,” the original bass notes are transposed to a real bowed bass, and the melody and backup are now shared on banjo and guitar. It’s as if the original guitar piece exploded and was collected by passing indie rockers. For instance, Sufjan Stevens’ “Variation on ‘Commemorative Transfiguration and Communion at Magruder Park'” takes the already dynamic original and brings it to new extremes with the addition of more instruments and lyrics — something sure to cause offense among purists. Some of the simplicity and focus of the precursors is sacrificed, but it’s replaced with a more complex sound that really brings out those piercing moments in Fahey.
Some of the album’s varied artists choose to skew Fahey’s emotions instead of amplifying them. Folk sensation Devendra Berndhart’s take on “Sligo River” leaves more of the original guitar intact, but takes the plodding, carefree attitude of the original and injects it with Berndhart’s signature melancholy. Fahey’s slow, sliding “Death of the Clayton Peacock” becomes an aggressive rock tune in the hands of the Fruit Bats with their addition of drums, distortion and striking hardness. Still, these new angles aren’t different for the sake of it, but rather, they are perfectly logical interpretations of Fahey’s original sentiments.
Conversely, “The Singing Bridge of Memphis Tennessee” is an oddity in Fahey’s repertoire, and it seems out of place here. The song is nothing but vague guitar noises over confusing atmospheric honks and whistles presumably connected to a bridge in Memphis. Lee Ranaldo does what he calls “The Brooklyn Bridge” version, and sure, the song is more reminiscent of Brooklyn, but it’s just as boring and weird as before. Ambient, industrial noises are added over fingerstyle guitar on Cul de Sac’s “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, CA” as well, and while it’s a little more musical than on “Brooklyn Bridge,” it still seems tediously out of place. Ultimately though, this creativity (combined with other innovative songs like M. Ward’s electric ragtime “Bean Vine Blues #2”) does more to represent the true range of Fahey’s work, rather than undo his accomplishments.
The playful excitement of “Bean Vine Blues #2” stands in contrast to longer, more varied pieces such as Immergluck, Kaphan, Krummernacher & Hanes’ “Joe Kirby Blues.” The track wanders slightly, and the expanded arrangement loses focus more easily than Fahey’s. The intense blues riffs towards the end of the song are lively, but feel pretentious when inserted into the mainly slow, explorative song. Other tracks, particularly Calexico’s “Dance of Death,” take advantage of the longer format to better articulate the powerfully angry moments, making them hit much harder.
While most of these songs are interesting and drastic takes on the Fahey originals, “When the Catfish Are in Bloom” (care of Peter Case) almost precisely mirrors the original. It would seem that he plays all the same notes as Fahey does, but somehow his version has a strikingly different effect; where Fahey’s was simple and sweet, Case’s is powerful and deep. Throughout all seven-and-a-half minutes, the song maintains a consistent, driving emotion. This song and the album are just what they should be — tributes to Fahey’s work instead of attempts at emulation. “I am the Resurrection” is an entertaining, varied and interesting celebration of an inventive and effusive performer. A resurrected Fahey would be pleased.