In 1999, James Blackshaw was a teenage guitarist from the London suburbs, playing in indie-rock bands. Then a friend played him The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites, a mid-Sixties album of solo acoustic fingerpicking by the iconic American guitarist John Fahey. “I remember not quite understanding it,” Blackshaw says now of that record, a seminal document of Fahey’s orchestral technique and compositional fusion of rugged Delta blues, Indian-raga modes and pioneer spirituals. But Blackshaw was intrigued enough to attend Fahey’s London concert that year (the latter died in 2001) and teach himself how to fingerpick and play in alternate tunings by studying Fahey’s recordings and American folk songs like Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train.” “I never got on that well in bands,” Blackshaw admits, laughing. “What attracted me to Fahey’s music was that it was solitary — very austere but very emotional.”
Nearly a decade later, Blackshaw, 26, is one of the best and most original instrumentalists in the new, acoustic renaissance, with a series of luminous solo recordings on which he enriches the full-bodied ring and drone of his twelve-string arpeggios with the gentle, symphonic blush of tamboura, harmonium and prayer-circle drumming. Compared to the intricately scored bloom of Blackshaw’s 2007 album, The Cloud of Unknowing (Tompkins Square), his early small-pressing releases (just reissued by Tompkins Square) are learning steps, lush and ambitious in increments. Celeste, first issued in 2004 in a microrun of 80 CD-Rs, is deceptive simplicity: a two-part half-hour suite of tumbling, repetitive motifs that mutate and expand like rippling circles of pond water. Lost Prayers and Motionless Dances, also from 2004, is a single piece, a lusty serenade that ends in a soft, hissing sea of radio static, echoing Fahey’s own experiments with folk rapture and raw-sound portraiture. Blackshaw’s 2005 album, Sunshrine, is his first mature triumph, an airy blend of overlapping six- and twelve-string figures, chapel-like keyboards and monastic percussion.
Blackshaw is not, by nature, an improviser. “The vast majority of my music is composed,” he says, noting that his next album, Litany of Echoes, to be released in June, has “more interplay with strings and piano. The repetition and drone are there, but there is more variation within the songs. I’m not the New Weird America,” he insists, using a popular shorthand name for the current acid-folk revival. “For a start, I’m British. Maybe I’m the New Weird England.”