If the internet is to be trusted, the guitarist Peter Walker has not played a gig in the UK since 1962. In the interim, he has befriended Karen Dalton, Sandy Bull and Janis Joplin, provided instrumental accompaniment for Dr Timothy Leary’s early LSD experiments, learned the art of raga from Ravi Shankar in the same class as George Harrison, and spent nearly four decades in a truck in Woodstock, chiefly practising flamenco guitar.
It’s an appealing story, an authentic case of an artist being so preoccupied with the scholarly aesthetic business of mastering his instrument that releases, or even much in the way of public performance, don’t seem necessary to them. Before Walker retreated, however, he recorded two albums for Vanguard in the ‘60s – “Second Poem To Karmela” and the extraordinary “Rainy Day Raga” – that conflated American folk and Indian devotional music just as effectively as contemporaneous work by John Fahey, Bull, Robbie Basho and all those other American Primitive guitarists that I love so much.
In the past couple of years, however, Walker has ambled back into action, touring with an obvious disciple, Jack Rose (whose own lovely new album, “Dr Ragtime And Pals” is something I’ve mystifyingly failed to blog about), contributing to his own tribute album, “A Raga For Peter Walker”, and now preparing a bunch of new records.
One is “Echo Of My Soul”, a manifestation of his obsession with flamenco, which is out pretty soon on Tompkins Square, and which is quite excellent. Then, later in the year, Megaphone will be putting out a raga set and an unreleased session from the late ‘60s.
First, though, there’s the small matter of this fantastic gig, at a great new venue called Café Oto in Dalston. Walker sits behind a plate of candles, tells stories about the historical congruencies between flamenco and raga, and switches between a nylon string guitar for the Spanish stuff, and a steel-stringed one for the Indian-derived music.
Walker’s virtuosity, in both disciplines, is pretty astonishing, but what’s also striking is how those long years of study and practise seem to have resulted in an intuitive understanding of the guitar and its possibilities; that an obsession with technique has created, unusually, a devotional take on traditional forms that is transcendent rather than hamstrung by muso perfectionism.
After one fabulously intricate raga, he puts the guitar back into its case and casually notes that he sold the same guitar to Karen Dalton in 1962, then bought it back from her in 1990 for the same price (as a feature in next month’s Uncut reveals, Walker was actually with Dalton when she died). I can’t remember many gigs where I’ve felt so palpably, intimately connected with history.
It’s a great night, and the sense of an experimental/mystical musical continuum is enhanced by the two young British support acts. Tom James Scott is a guitarist who my friend Yates described, not unreasonably, as “Reich folk”. Most of Scott’s playing is very spacey and minimal, but he’ll occasionally go into romantic, Bashovian passages, plus some quiet scrabble that reminds me a bit of an unplugged and unprocessed Christian Fennesz.
Lavinia Blackwall, meanwhile, alternates between harp (a small one, Celtic I think, rather than the big concert type favoured by Joanna Newsom) and sings very austere and beautiful folk songs pitched somewhere between Shirley Collins (circa “Love, Death And The Lady”) and something more formal, early choral music perhaps. I’d like to see and hear more of both of them.
Next up, Club Uncut tonight with Jana Hunter and Phosphorescent at the Borderline. See you there. . .