Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Sandy Bull - Re-Inventions: The Best Of The Vanguard Years

Sandy Bull
Re-Inventions: The Best Of The Vanguard Years

Released 1999 on Vanguard
Reviewed by Popel Vooje, 17/08/2002ce

Often mentioned in the same breath as the equally great (not to mention far more prolific) John Fahey, Sandy Bull's music is, in truth, far calmer and more transcendental in nature, although the underlying darkness, and sometimes even menace, that characterises Fahey's best work is also present in this compilation's highlights.

Taking in material from three albums recorded between 1962 and 1971, "Re-Inventions" is a revelation to anyone who thinks the concept of "world music" (at it's best, representing an internationalist desire to escape the boundaries of western parochialism by exposing oneself to a variety of influences from throughout the seven continents, and at it's worst, representing a bourgeois guilt complex about Britain's colonial past) didn't come to fruition until the mid-70s experiments of Miles Davis, Can (with their Ethnological Forgery Series) and others.

It begins with "Blend", a 21-minute excursion which starts out with solo acoustic guitar flourishes that eventually develop into a full-blown Ravi Shankar-esque raga workout. With the assistance of jazz drummer Billy Higgins on percussion, "Blend" passes through brief allusions to bluegrass and folk whilst foreshadowing both the raga-rock solos of Roger McGuinn and the improv-psyche excursions of Jerry Garcia into the bargain. After about thirteen minutes or so, this track builds up towards a smoking climax that's as revitalising as a good sauna. Suffice to say, it's also the perfect soundtrack to a spliff-induced vegetative mong-out.

It's followed by "Manha De Carnival", a relaxed but brooding bossa nova piece which subliminally infiltrates the listener's brain over thirteen minutes whilst sounding like the soundtrack to the most blissed-out South American holiday you ever (or never) had. Next up is the "Carmina Burana Theme", Bull's arrangement of which is nothing short of a revelation. The very idea that such a grandiose, epic piece could be reproduced using nothing but a five string banjo is a feat of idiotic ambition that only a master instrumentalist like Bull could pull off so successfully. What was once a histrionic call-to-arms now sounds resigned and elegiac in a way that Carl Orff could probably never have imagined. (This is not intended as a diss on the original version, by the way).

Track no 4 is "Gospel Tune", which takes the shimmering tremelo guitar stylings of Pops Staples and presents them in a new, sparser context, removing the lyrics and rhythm section altogether and allowing the instrumental work to re-create the devotional yearning of Paul Robeson's spirituals on their own. Again, Bull's less-is-more ethos works in his favour, resulting in one of his most atmospheric early recordings.

Meanwhile, track no. 5, "Little Maggie", is an affectionate interpretation of an old folk song dating from Bull's earliest coffeehouse gigs during which he frequently played on the same bill as up-and-coming folk heroes like Dylan and Fred Neil. It's followed by what, for me, is the highlight of this entire disc, "Memphis, Tennesee". A song which, in Chuck Berry's hands was a pithy vignette about losing a girlfriend due to the disapproval of her mother is now a sprawling, evocative instrumental that conjures up the arid expanse of the desert more effectively than any similar recording by Ry Cooder that this reviewer has ever heard. Two completely seperate lead guitar overdubs, one smooth and connected, the other stuttering and aggressive, alternate to give an impression of festering sexuality that recalls John Lee Hooker at his most unrestrained and improvisatory.

Track no.7 is a medieval piece entitled "Triple Ballade", originally written for lute and reproduced by Bull on five string banjo, that once again succeeds in stripping back the instrumentation and creating the impression of two or more players using rudimentary overdubs. Then, the compilation jumps forward six years to 1971 and it's final inclusion, "Carnival Jump". Recorded with a new drummer, the late Dennis Charles, on hand percussion, this piece is a droning rhythmic excursion that predates the similarly blissed-out plains of Can's "Animal Waves" by a good five years.

I was lucky enough to be introduced to Sandy Bull's muse last year by a record-store owner in Haight Ashbury who was friends with the man until his sad demise from lung cancer in April of 2001. Listening to it opened me up to the world of pre-electric freeform music and made me realise that there was a whole motherlode of such stuff outside the parameters of jazz and krautrock (my only prior entrees into the world of improv besides San Francisco psyche). It also made me realise that the minimalist ethos of the best Krautrock wasn't only preceded by the more consciously avant-garde likes of Terry Riley and La Monte Young. Hopefully, discovering this anthology will do the same for you, as well as providing some of the most effective late-night chill-out sounds you've ever heard.

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