Steve Dawson,
Rattlesnake Cage
(Black Hen, 2014)

Ryley Walker,
All Kinds of You
(Tompkins Square, 2014)

Ryley Walker is a Chicago acoustic guitarist in his mid-20s. Bert Jansch, who died in 2011, was an English acoustic guitarist, born in Scotland, who influenced Donovan, Paul Simon, the late Nick Drake, Neil Young and a host of other musicians, including -- most recently -- Ryley Walker. Actually, nobody sounds more like Jansch, as either guitarist or vocalist, than Walker. You might even be tempted to spin All Kinds of You for a Jansch fan and try to persuade him or her that you've uncovered a lost album from the master.

What's missing here is the British traditional music Jansch loved and regularly recorded alongside his own compositions and other artists' material (for instance memorable readings of calendar classics such as Dave Goulder's "The January Man" and Robin Williamson's "October Song"). Still, All Kinds is a dazzling record, with compelling originals and, on some cuts, the sort of lush, dreamy soundscape Jansch conjured up when he reached for production styles beyond the purely, folkily acoustic.

Walker's approach is moody, atmospheric and melodic, and also too intense to recede into the background. His finger-picking amounts to a strong second voice. The nine cuts, starting with the evocative "West Wind," are consistently excellent. Probably, Walker is already tired of seeing Jansch's name in every article and review, but I hope he understands that to be spoken of in the same sentence is to be mightily complimented. In any event, if all who claimed, for example, Bob Dylan as a major force in their musical imagination were criticized for that, we'd be out a lot of music deserving of our collective attention. Walker and guitar will go on, I'm sure, to do what comes to them and wander where they wish, but All Kinds of You represents a most auspicious start to what is certain to be an interesting journey.

Steve Dawson, of Vancouver and (as of late) Nashville, is Canada's leading roots-music impresario, a man who wears -- literally and metaphorically -- several hats. An exceptional musician himself, he heads the label Black Hen Music and organizes concerts such as a remarkable one held in honor of the Mississippi Sheiks, the great African-American string band of the 1930s (I reviewed the resulting DVD in this space on 12 March 2011). The all-original, all-instrumental Rattlesnake Cage showcases Dawson in a solo setting and on a variety of acoustic guitars.

It has spun innumerable times on my CD player, and it's hard to find fault with such superior music and splendid performance. I mean not the slightest disrespect, then, when I note that though neither man is mentioned, this could pass for a homage to John Fahey and his most famous acolyte, Leo Kottke. Fahey in particular was obsessed with the rural African-American music of the early 20th century, and though he never sang (probably because he couldn't), he created an affecting, ingenious sound out of the soul of the South.

The possessor of a droll sense of humor, he liked to attach oddly evocative titles to his material. So did Kottke on his early, most Fahey-shaded recordings. Dawson's pieces boast such monickers as "Blind Thomas at the Crime Scene," "The Flagpole Skater Laughs from Above" and "While the West Was Won, the Earth Didn't Know It." "The Medicine Show Comes to Avalon" is the ghost of the most famous resident of Avalon, Mississippi, a certain singer/guitarist named John Hurt.

It all makes for a welcome visitor to your ear. Dawson's playing is full and warm, and the broad familiarity of its approach should offend nobody, since I suspect that's the point.

music review by
Jerome Clark

19 April 2014

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