Michael Chapman has a lot of history. His first album came out in 1969. Performing solo, with an acoustic guitar, he prefaced almost every song with an explanation for the location that inspired it, or the memory it's designed to invoke. And not every song has words: his instrumentals are so melodic, complex and propulsive, they don't need them. Chapman is one of those musicians you can watch and still not quite understand how the sounds you can hear are being made. But that first time, I was too far away to get a really good look - so I just happily abandoned myself to listening in a kind of dreamy wonder.
Hearing that support slot was enough to kick-start some research, which has, in turn, resulted in a mild addiction. I won't go into any real details of Chapman's past career, fascinating though they are (see below for main reasons!) but what's happening now is interesting enough. Chapman has spent a number of years much further beneath the radar than he should be - but the record label Light in the Attic is reissuing his early records, which will no doubt restore him to the pantheon of past and present guitar alchemists.
But at the same time, he is still pushing the boundaries of his craft, releasing longer-form improvisations on smaller labels which show how influential and important he is to the 'freak folk' / psych scenes (championed by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, and the late acoustic guitar virtuoso Jack Rose among others). I am very attracted to the idea that his adaptable, exploratory genius puts him at the centre of the newly-loved past, and the past-inspired new. Those entranced by the current material will go looking for the old stuff, and what do you know? - it's all coming out again. Perfect.
So, I was thrilled to find out he was playing Croydon again, in the Fairfield Halls Arnhem Gallery (a smaller venue-within-the-venue). This time, it was his gig. I arrived a bit early at the Halls - I wasn't sure if I'd need to secure a place 'at the front', or similar. Initially, I was a bit disconcerted, as the first person I saw hanging around outside the Halls was a man of about 50 or so, in a trilby, grey suit jacket, above sheer black stockings, suspenders and Doc Martens. Suddenly flanked by goths in tutus from about five steps inside the foyer, I realised that the Rocky Horror Show was on in the main auditorium. I was slightly relieved that this turned out not to be Michael Chapman's core audience, as I'd have hated to stand out.
Instead, the Arnhem Gallery was decked out in very civilised fashion with chairs and tables laid out in a kind of jazz/folk club style. I nabbed a chair at the front, determined to get a better view this time. Promoting the latest re-release, 'Wrecked Again' from 1971, Chapman played the first set solo, then introduced Sarah Smout on cello and B J Cole on pedal steel to flesh out some of the tracks from the album (which featured a full orchestra).
(This caused my second visual hiccup of the evening, when under the stage lights Cole, hunched over his instrument and side-on to the audience, took on this slight Jeremy Clarkson appearance. I think it might have been something to do with his crimson-lit hair looking curlier from the side. Momentarily hypnotised by this, I also noticed his loud patterned shirt could have been purloined from James May. A Hammond organ instead of a pedal steel would've made the Top Gear hat-trick. Croydon. It plays tricks on the mind.)
Chapman was clearly delighted to be sharing the stage with these two, and rightly so. He has since said on Twitter that he was going for "atmosphere and texture", and that's exactly what they achieved. I thought it was telling how generous and deferential a bandleader he was, playing mostly electric guitar for this part of the show and providing a pulsing but gentle rhythm as the pedal steel and cello danced above and below it. I remember being particularly spellbound by 'The First Leaf of Autumn', which maintained a stately rhythm throughout but with Chapman's two bandmates taking turns to solo and improvise, elevating the already catchy chord pattern between the verses to more and more euphoric heights.
But for all the delights offered by the band setting - and there were many - I have to recommend without any reservations that if you get a chance to see this man perform solo: just go. When he straps on an acoustic guitar, the years fly away, and for all his self-effacing and laidback demeanour, he gives, without fail, a masterclass. I suppose I would give two main reasons for this.
1) Technical genius. I've been privileged to see a number of musical heroes who are so good at their instruments, it almost seems otherworldly: Richard Thompson, Toumani Diabate, Keith Jarrett. Chapman has the same effect on me. For tune after tune - and tuning after tuning - he plays a percussive bass line, adds a rhythm, then solos over the top. Line after line of melody emerges, yet nothing seems to drop out. Crucially, he does this differently throughout the song - let alone the set - as if he is actually a band (God knows he can make the noise of one) and the various members are occupying the spotlight in turn.
2) Tone poetry. I suspect that one of the reasons the free folk/noise artists have identified with Chapman so readily is that, as well as keys, notes, chords, etc- all that conventional stuff - he's also interested in the actual sound. For the solo part of the evening, he never changes guitar - it's the same acoustic - but he sounds like he does. He describes sitting under a tree by a lake, feeling his way towards a new tune as fish splash in the water - then he starts 'Caddo Lake' and instantly picks the 'blip' of water droplets from the strings. It's transporting. And he uses his gifts for humour, too: 'Fahey's Flag' affectionately sends up John Fahey's playing - with slide mayhem over scarily intricate picking, all at once - without ever forgetting to be an addictive tune in its own right.
This is the right time to mention a virtual pal of mine, known not only, but mostly, as Mondo. His website, Planet Mondo, is the kind of place you must visit as long as you remember to come out again. There's an embarrassment of musical riches, lovingly cushioned in phenomenally wide-ranging but very lightly-worn knowledge. Arriving at Chapman-related conversion a year or two ahead of me, Mondo has explored his fascinating history on his own blog, and I really recommend you read it. Start here, then follow the links where you will - particularly, perhaps, to here.
Finally - in my untiring efforts to make Chapman fans of THE LOT OF YOU, here is the link to the official website, and to whet your appetite, not one but TWO videos - the first with vocals, the second instrumental. I spoil you.
In the Valley: