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James Blackshaw

+ {Brethren Of The Free Spirit}

On a mission to recreate the 12-string guitar wizardry by 60s/70s blues-folk icons, LEO KOTTKE, PETER LANG, JOHN FAHEY, ROBBIE BASHO and SANDY BULL, while standing tall amongst newbie modern-day contemporaries, GLENN JONES and JACK ROSE, the youthful JAMES BLACKSHAW brings innovation and experimental skill to the acoustic, musical table.
Born late 1981 in London, England, his mainly limited edition, self-released CD-R albums have created quite a storm since the hypnotic APOLOGIA {*6} and CELESTE {*7} were released in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Combining additional use of Farfisa organ & cymbals, BLACKSHAW fingerpicks his way through spiritual-like, Eastern ragas with melody and flair. In two parts – around a quarter-hour each – each rhythm shape-shifts its merry way until an almost mantra-rush climax. Thanks to New York imprint, Tompkins Square, the album would be officially released to an ever-increasing fanbase.
The very same outlet was responsible for BLACKSHAW’s second effort proper, LOST PRAYERS AND MOTIONLESS DANCES (2004) {*7}, initially available to only 200 lucky aficionados (there was a split LP with Davenport: White Goddess). Unlike his previous folk LP, harmonium drones besieged the first quarter of this lengthy 34-minute myriad of technical diversity, while the chords of C F C F C F maintained the infectious balance of free-form rhythm and master-class picking. The aforementioned WHITE GODDESS was added to the CD re-issue update.
Bells and bowed cymbals shrouded the opening of JB’s third CD-R, SUNSHRINE (2005) {*7}, another in limited form, although this time it stretched to a 1000 copies (Tompkins Square was again behind the re-issue proper). Tuning 12 & 6-string at C G C G C F (get your instruction manuals here folks!), the multi-textured, 26-minute title track is the showpiece here. BLACKSHAW simply transcends the spirit and ethos of Brit-folkers, BERT JANSCH and DAVY GRAHAM, quite literally moving the 60s to the 00s. Played on a 6-string, the guitarist gets back to basics on second and final cue, `Skylark Herald’s Dawn’, a rather shorter piece at just over 3 minutes but exquisite nevertheless.
Actually his first official, proper CD release (not a CD-r), O TRUE BELIEVERS (2006) {*7}, was another giant step into acoustic instrumental territory (try C E C E C D). Ranging from the lengthy, 18-minute `The Elk With Jade Eyes’ (complete with Indian tanpura & harmonium) to the 11-minute, `Transient Life In Twilight’, to the shorter, 5-minute title track finale, BLACKSHAW twists and turns with every joyous and meticulous note. Rather G Factor (than X Factor), G for guitar of course, James would win any such TV contest – by the proverbial country mile, or maybe a folkie furlong.
An out-of-step live in Sweden set, WAKING INTO SLEEP (2007) {*5}, was thankfully overshadowed by studio album #5, THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING (2007) {*7}, his first to gain an Stateside release. Now very much in his mid-20s, BLACKSHAW showed signs of real maturity while finally breaking out into his own spiritual strum-storm. Opening by way of the multi-layered title track, his rhythmic fingerpicking offer endless possibilities. The two instrumentals that shine, `Running To The Ghost’ and the glorious,15-minute `Stained Glass Windows’ (both coincidentally featuring accomplished violinist Fran Bury), are without question exemplary in craft and complexity. The Middle Eastern-meets-MORRICONE-styled `The Mirror Speaks’, has melodious moments of blissed-out, breakneck 12-string guitar that would make even MIKE OLDFIELD blush. If music was a period building, BLACKSHAW would be its architect.
Again utilizing the aforementioned Bury on violin (and viola), LITANY OF ECHOES (2008) {*7}, at times deviated away from alt-folk pulse and into the world of avant-classical, the example being piano-led, bookend tracks, `Gate Of Ivory’ & `Gate Of Horn’ (think PHILIP GLASS or TERRY RILEY). Pushing the boundaries of his own ambitious soundscapes, young JB sets his sights on Eastern/Western transcendentalism, through emotional and earthy pieces such as `Past Has Not Passed’, `Echo And Abyss’, `Shroud’ and his piece de resistance, `Infinite Circle’.
Other projects such as the heretical Christian order-inspired BRETHREN OF THE FREE SPIRIT (alongside lute player, Jozef Van Wissem), made it a busy year for JB.
Two sets appeared in 2008, the lo-fi/ambient, Belgian-only set, ALL THINGS ARE FROM HIM, THROUGH HIM, AND IN HIM {*5} and THE WOLF ALSO SHALL DWELL WITH THE LAMB {*6}, the latter record a relaxing half-hour of 12-string (D A D E A D) & Baroque master-class comprising experimental dirges that are rooted strictly to 13th/14th century muzaks.
With a move to MICHAEL GIRA’s `Young God’ imprint, THE GLASS BEAD GAME (2009) {*8} – named after a Hermann Hesse novel – was another dazzling display of acoustic atmospherics including the near-19-minute finale `Arc’. Introducing vocalist Lavinia Blackwell (of TREMBLING BELLS), plus Current 93 newbies, cellist John Contreras and violinist Joolie Wood (James had guested on the group’s most recent recording, `Aleph At Hallucinatory Mountain’), BLACKSHAW completed 8 parts in yet another oblique-folk set, ALL IS FALLING (2010) {*6}.
Re-appearing on the Groveland, Massachusetts-based Important Records (2006’s `O True Believers’ was his first), James tested the waters with a 2-track/20-minute EP, `Holly’ (2011), comprising the lead track plus the equally delightful `Boo, Forever’; somehow the instrumental pieces did not surface again until being bonus bookends on 2015’s SUMMONING SUNS {*7}. His first album to feature his voice and lyrics in singer-songwriter mode, BLACKSHAW sprinkled fairy-dust onto the likes of `Confetti’ (a duet with Annie Nilsson) and `Failure’s Flame’, among others. Augmented by SLOWDIVE’s Simon Scott and Japanese musicians Mori Wa Ikiteiru and Kaoru Noda, the deft finger-picking and interplay almost sounded contemporary, if not lush and poetical.
Between the years 2012 and 2014, BLACKSHAW was a busy bee on three counts: the first of these a mostly instrumental set entitled LOVE IS THE PLAN, THE PLAN IS DEATH {*8}. Inspired in essence by the passionate work of sci-fi scribe James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice B. Sheldon), the deep and mournful passages were executed exquisitely with his nylon 6-string in hand, while JB’s friend Genevieve Beaulieu came up trumps with lyrics/voice on `And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways’. Loneliness, isolation and identity were apparent on each meticulous flick of his strings and, true to the spirit of ROBBIE BASHO et al, `Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, `A Momentary Taste Of Being’, etc., echoed his haunted heroes – and some.
2013’s THE WATCHERS {*6} was cut the previous year with Ukrainian pianist Lubomyr Melnyk, whom BLACKSHAW met at the Hea Uus Heli Festival back in October 2008. Honoured to be working with the veteran after so long, they set up a free day at the Vortex Jazz Café in London, where they completed six hours face to face; James on 12-string and his old humble acquaintance facing him on grand piano. Mostly improvised, their unique styles gelled on four lengthy pieces from `Tascheter’ to `Haftorang’.
Inevitably, BLACKSHAW was led into the world of soundtracks when YANN TIERSEN invited the guitarist to perform (at the prestigious Theatre De Chatelet in Paris on 31st October 2013) the score for silent movie FANTOMAS: LE FAUX MAGISTRAT {*7}. Doing homework on movie composers such as DAVID SHIRE and PINO DONAGGIO, the sinister plot of the film was separated into 13 parts over 75 minutes, with the help of musicians Duane Pitre, Charlotte Glasson (violin) and the aforementioned Simon Scott. BLACKSHAW’s most ambitious undertaking to date, the juxtaposition of atmosphere, ambience and audacious avant-garde was truly awe-inspiring.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Mar2015

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