Around the end of summer 2017, Rob Noyes and Alexander (David Shapiro of Headroom, Nagual) needed a place to play in Minneapolis, and thanks to my roommate Steve, ended up in our backyard. It was a perfect summer night where the crickets were almost as loud as the music, and the music sounded all the better for it.
I had the last-minute idea to record the night on my old Radioshack Reel-to-Reel, and I was so pleased with the results that I decided to keep doing it and start this blog of live recordings. I’ve been sitting on this first one for a while now, and listening back when there’s five feet of snow piled up in the same backyard where we set up the show is a nice respite from winter. It also reminds me why house shows are so vital; some music truly cannot be heard in a better space than among friends, acquaintances, and strangers at someone's house, opened up to whoever’s interested.
Something is inevitably lost when you record a solo acoustic guitar performance. A skilled player can bring you somewhere beyond the patterns of their notes, subtly changing their tone and dynamics in a way that tends to never quite make it onto the tape. This is particularly true when you’re recording onto a rickety old reel-to-reel that you bought on craigslist and hastily set up without a lot of technical forethought. But inverse to whatever was lost in these recordings that night, something strange and surreal was gained. The hiss of the evening meshes with the tape hiss, growing softer as the player leans into the mic, then louder as they pull away. The overtones and harmonics of thick guitar chords get churned into a frothy hum. The tape warbles every now and then, chiming in with a quick vibrato like it’s meant to be there.
These recordings are not a sparklingly clear reproduction of either of these musicians. They are closer to a charcoal sketch than a photograph. I did my best to put the life back into them that I heard that night, but they’ve become something else entirely now.
Thanks Rob and David for letting me record your remarkable music.
Rob plays live with much more urgency and fire than he does on recording—at least more than he did on his fantastic debut LP The Feudal Spirit. He often finds these hypnotic, looping grooves that are hard to count, but settle comfortably in your ear anyway.
As a 12 string player, it’s tempting to compare Noyes to Leo Kottke, and his energy and speed is certainly reminiscent. However, there’s definitely something unlike his predecessors happening in his clamoring fingerstyle. When he really gets cooking, Noyes has a way of making you forget the individual strokes of his fingers, instead conjuring hallucinatory sounds that seem unattached to his strings. I noticed this especially in the last tune he played that night; he hammered away until the notes blurred into something that didn’t quite resemble guitar music as I know it. It felt more like some buzzing, whirring machine, cranked up so hot that it might jump off the ground, constantly flirting with busting open and spewing gears everywhere. Nothing of the sort happened, though, because Rob is a gentlemen and not a machine.
He's also a unique talent who's making new and exciting sounds while still somewhat resembling whatever American Primitive guitar is, and he's doing it better than almost anyone else in the game right now.
Alexander’s recorded output varies from carefully crafted solo acoustic guitar to noisy, feedback-driven drone. Here he played the former. His pieces are often deceptively simple at the start and then slowly unfold into grand statements, blossoming upwards like a sapling growing into an old tree until it’s shimmering in fractal intricacy. When he finds his way back to the beginning, the same cadence he played earlier sounds changed, like it’s seen things on a journey.
The most stunning and bold thing about Alexander's playing is that he isn't afraid to hang on a few notes for a while, take things very slow, and gradually unravel intricate moments with the minimal rigor of a Japanese tea ceremony. His music was a perfect foil to the sheer velocity of his tour mate.
Alexander's pieces live in a place that you have to get up close to, cup your hands around your eyes and peer into in order to see, where you find a churning kaleidoscope once your eyes adjust. He draws your attention to the timbre of each finger stroke, often ending on notes barely played. You have to really get your audience's attention before you can pull off that kind quietude. He did that consistently. The people sitting close to the microphones will inform you of that with their breathless murmurs in case you're listening to this while checking your email and it didn't have the same effect.
If you're into this kind of music, expect to hear a lot of these two in the future. Both Rob and Alexander are playing the Thousand Incarnations of the Rose guitar festival in April in Takoma Park—John Fahey's boyhood home. Go to that damn festival and see them live if you have the chance. I'll see you there. Possibly with an unwieldy reel-to-reel under my arm.
Steve and I opened up the show as Slow Clarity. Here's something we worked on together from Steve's debut on Dying For Bad Music.
Thanks for listening, and check back soon for more music. I've got more shows in the can almost ready to post, and I'm planning on recording many more. Sign up for the email list or subscribe to the RSS Feed if you want to be in the know.