Guitar Innovators: John Fahey & Nels Cline
Runs Fri., Sept. 6-Thurs., Sept. 12 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 84 minutes.
This program presents two takes on the guitar-hero archetype, though their differences are more about timing than perspective. The first profiles John Fahey (1939–2001), the inventive guitarist and musicologist. The second is told from within the creative crucible of Nels Cline, lead guitarist for Wilco, who’s actively reinventing the instrument for this new century.
Guitar players and enthusiasts are the intended audience for both docs, but this is also a very kind pairing for the casual fan, who can learn where Cline’s racket comes from before being subjected to it. The hour-long doc The Search for Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey opens with train tracks and rolling countryside before The Who’s Pete Townsend appears, proclaiming Fahey the William S. Burroughs or Charles Bukowski of folk guitar players. It’s a nice bit of framing that creates great expectation for the artist, though his early life isn’t that unique. Talking heads guide us through his artistic development, one music critic suggesting that the babbling brooks of his youthful wilderness hikes inspired Fahey’s rolling, repetitive, slightly discordant finger-picking style. Among his disciples are the Decemberists’ Chris Funk and Calexico’s Joey Burns, who provide humorous, if somewhat removed, accounts of the far-out Fahey.
James Cullingham’s doc then wisely moves on to Fahey’s development as a musicologist. After starting a record label to release his own records (because no one else would dare), Fahey toured the South, knocking on doors in search of old blues standards he could reissue. It’s this curiosity and hunger that make Fahey a compelling character—along with early interview footage that features the young artist ashing cigarettes into his guitar.
Yet shortly before his death, Fahey connected with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to record abstract electric-guitar sound collages. That departure from his folk roots is no less jarring than the second doc of the evening, Steven Okazaki’s half-hour Approximately Nels Cline. The film presents Cline in his studio, experimenting with sound, collaborating with a handful of notable musicians, and sharing his well-examined philosophy on intuitive guitar picking. It’s less comprehensive than Blind Joe Death, but the entertainment value is high.
Do Fahey and Cline have anything in common? Maybe they don’t need to. It’s possible to appreciate both musicians as one-of-a-kind during this double feature. (Note: Seattle guitarist Bill Horist will perform before the Friday- and Saturday-night screenings.)