Live Music + Gig Reviews

Michael Chapman, Dean McPhee and Daniel Land @ Lexington, London

29 January 2012

At the age of 71, Michael Chapman is in sharp mind and defiant mood. “Tonight will finally put to rest this idea that I’m a fookin’ folk singer”, he snaps, with dry humour. For the collaboration with guitarists Dean McPhee and Daniel Land that ‘recreates’ The Resurrection And Revenge Of The Clayton Peacock, Chapman’s first album of improvised noise from last year and concludes this compelling concert, the trio claim to have had a mere half an hour of rehearsal time.

This is Chapman, encouraged in the first instance by Thurston Moore (who released the first limited vinyl run of Clayton Peacock), exploring the contours of spontaneity and interaction, in a remarkable late blooming of creativity. As a result of this, he is reaching a whole new audience. His previous work as both folk singer and composer of music for solo guitar is at last being made widely available and getting its due appreciation.

Before the closing extravaganza though, Chapman and special guests Dean McPhee and Daniel Land perform short sets of their own. McPhee’s opening performance is magical, with a swathe of reverb turning the sound of his lone electric guitar into something sepulchral and imposing. In a set that is sadly all too brief, we get an impressive snapshot of McPhee’s artistry – there’s one track from his excellent Son Of The Black Peace album and one from his Brown Bear EP as well as a clutch of new compositions that seem to further develop and enhance his playing style.

The new material (‘Evil Eye’ especially) has a rolling, rhythmic quality to it – a greater urgency than his more contemplative pieces. What also really cuts through in this performance is McPhee’s incredibly strong melodic sense. This music is about a good deal more than the reverb-soaked atmospheres McPhee creates. The chiming, crystal clear attack of McPhee’s melodies are occasionally reminiscent of Patrick Patterson from the great Cymande, although this is of course a very different context and it would be surprising if McPhee had even heard that band. There’s one lengthy new piece (which might be called ‘Fatima’s Hand’) which also shows McPhee’s fluency in his exposition of his themes. The older compositions (‘Star Burial’ and ‘Sky Burial’) bookend the set and demonstrate McPhee’s skill in establishing mood and atmosphere.

Daniel Land approaches the guitar more unconventionally, often abandoning correct techniques altogether in his search for ever more fuzzy and disorientating sheets of sound. Much of this seems to be down to his combination of added effects. It’s briefly mesmerising, and provides for an intriguing contrast with the more studied approaches of McPhee and Chapman.

Chapman’s solo set is even more mercilessly concise, but within its short time span is a wealth of wonders. Chapman’s dexterity remains peerless and he has delved ever more deeper into the sound of both the blues and the Takoma school of guitar players (John Fahey particularly). A wonderful moment comes when Chapman uses his wedding ring as a slide. The music is somehow both graceful and attacking – full of spirit, exuberance and feeling.

Inevitably, the advertising of this gig as Michael Chapman plays …Clayton Peacock turns out to be somewhat misleading. It is of course completely impossible to recreate a single piece of improvised music that exists only once. In actual fact, this intriguing collaboration deftly balances the contrasting styles of Chapman, McPhee and Land and takes a rather different direction away from the sound of the album. Tonight’s music is less abrasive, but no less engaging, travelling through a satisfying variety of textures and moods.

Of the three, it is Chapman who plays most conventionally – anchoring the improvisation in his own inherited musical language. He plays recognisable chords, as well as returning, with brilliant results, to a surprisingly groovy ostinato bass figure. This rhythmic impetus drifts in and out of the ether. Too often, this approach to improvisation leads to the conscious abandoning of rhythm as a musical element. It seems that Chapman has recognised that this can often result in a musical cul-de-sac.

Given the excess of effects being utilised, it’s remarkable how well blended the three musicians are. What could come across as a confrontational exercise instead becomes a moment of mutual exploration. Having said that, it all ends with one final flourish of feedback – a tinnitus-inducing reminder of Chapman’s defiance.

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