Graded on a Curve:
John Hulburt, Opus III

In 1972 the late guitarist John Hulburt, then based in Chicago, self-released his sole album. Decades later a copy was plucked from a Windy City record bin by Ryley Walker, the contents so impressing Hulburt’s fellow string slinger that he partnered with Tompkins Square’s Josh Rosenthal to produce its reissue. Featuring 20 tracks of nimble fingerpicking and a demeanor suggesting Berkeley or Greenwich Village in the heart of the 1960s, Opus III is available now on LP/CD/digital.

Opus III is John Hulburt’s lone full-length (there is no Opus I or II), but it wasn’t the extent of his studio experience; roughly five years earlier he was a part of Chicago garage act The Knaves. Managing a pair of singles in ’67 for the Dunwich label, their complete recordings were recently compiled by Sundazed on the 10-inch “Leave Me Alone!”

Unlike their Chi-town garage cohorts The Shadows of Knight (who also recorded for Dunwich), The New Colony Six and The Cryan’ Shames, The Knaves lacked any national chart action and apparently weren’t even particularly popular locally. This shouldn’t insinuate a lack of quality; described by Knave’s member Gene Lubin in Opus III’s notes as “punk/rock,” The Knaves could distill the Stones and Pretty Things with adequate flair but were actually quite adept at crafting surprisingly durable folk-rock ditties with ample and smartly rendered harmonies.

Lubin relates that Hulburt was brought into the Knaves’ fold to sing and shake a tambourine. Within a year he was adding guitar to the band’s 45s, and by 1972 it was his primary instrument; issued on Hulburt’s own Clarence imprint, Opus III was an early engineering credit for Barry Mraz (Styx, Ohio Players, David Johansen, Fotomaker etc).

Neglecting to cite John Fahey’s influence on Hulburt’s work is essentially dishonesty by omission. Taken alone the connection isn’t especially noteworthy; surely by ‘72 numerous sets of hands were able to fingerpick near the general proximity of Fahey, Kottke, Jansch etc. Instead, it’s the threads of individuality and aspects derived from Opus III’s reality as a private press which elevates it in stature.

For starters, the LP highlights Hulburt as a more extroverted player than Fahey, his succinct, often tidy compositions well summed up in the title “Coffee House Theme”; keep ‘em brief, the better to curtail potential audience restlessness. This isn’t to imply Fahey was unfamiliar with the bean juice circuit, but on record he was noted for his introspection and exploratory nature.

As mentioned above, Opus III offers 20 selections, many only a shade over one minute in length; it’s an attribute that almost certainly would’ve gotten altered had Hulburt been propositioned by the industry. This scenario isn’t a bit farfetched; nothing loner or oddball exudes from these efforts, and backing this up further is his relationship with Mraz, the engineer’s input on Styx’s debut (issued on independent Wooden Nickel, the successor to Dunwich) transpiring the same year.

Opus III radiates like the kind of record bought directly from the guitarist after a gig, its grooves loaded with material since the opportunity to cut another may never arise. It opens on a reworking of the a-side to The Knaves’ second single, “Inside Outside” adjusted to “Inside & Otherwise” as the template of the original is stripped back and then infused with some John Hurt-like motion.

It’s short enough to serve as a prelude to “The Freak on the Black Harley,” a number solidly out of the Takoma school, though the title makes it clear Hulburt was comfortable huffing the lingering fumes of Easy Rider. It’s an association a bit out-of-date by ’72, but perhaps not; no doubt at least a handful of hippie idealists successfully resisted hanging up their bongs and bellbottoms for cocaine and nihilism post-Altamont.

“Street Singer’s Rag” expands to pre-Fahey stylistic influences, and Hulburt waits until four tracks in to utilize his voice, “Guitar on My Knee” oozing such good-natured pizzazz that it’s a safe bet some ears will find him a tad (or a lot) too polite. His pipes are strong however, and he scores points in not attempting to approximate the weathered croak of an octogenarian.

The structural freshness of “Evil Olive Waltz” does emphasize that Hulburt was wise to employ vocals as a flavoring rather than the main course. The meat on Opus III’s plate is represented by crisp room-pleasers such as “John Hulburt’s New Rag,” but the gentle singing and lively picking on “Wooden Mistress” argue in favor of the artist as more than an enthusiastic copyist.

With that said, the extended “Sunrise,” while plainly under the spell of Fahey still succeeds magnificently in mastering two key related ingredients, specifically technical prowess in the service of beauty. It’s a combination found in the shorter dexterousness of “The Noble Ashcan,” and if reminiscent of Fahey, “Clark St.” is more straightforwardly bluesy, assisting in validating the expressed influence on Hulburt from second generation Chicago bluesmen such as Otis Rush, Junior Wells, and Luther Allison.

Electric blues, indeed anything amplified, was the common undertaking on their shared turf, and in fact this private press is something of an anomaly. Reportedly one of the few solo guitar discs to have originated from Chicago, the sturdy “All Night Waitress” proposes Opus III as amongst the best. “Freak on the Black Harley (Revisited)” adds flute to the album’s equation, an intrusion not unpleasant here though prudently limited to this and penultimate entry “Inner Garden.”

The title of “Variations on Yet Another Stolen Theme” is self-deprecating, but it (and the music) gets to the root of the solo guitar milieu of Hulburt’s inspiration and the garage scene that spawned him; once stolen, one must do something with it. “O’ For the Twelve String” maintains the blend of gorgeousness and the adroit, with “Coffee House Theme” and “In Search of the Muse” downshifting into the contemplative. And at 55 seconds “Libby” basically just segues into the elaborate but still concise “Polydiom No. 2.”

Alongside flute, Hulburt sings on “Inner Garden,” and the resulting mixture is really Opus III’s main instance of faltering, the ambiance tipping overboard into mellow sensitivity. “Hallelujah I’m on Parole Again” rights the ship for the close, and a single misfire in 20 is a damned good percentage. Overall the LP hangs around the outskirts of great, its charms somewhat minor yet ultimately enhanced by characteristics of uniqueness.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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