Graded on a Curve:
Don Bikoff,
Hallowed Ground

Don Bikoff waited 45 years for his album Celestial Explosion to gather the attention and acclaim it deserved. His new CD Hallowed Ground finds him honing an increasingly distinctive instrumental voice through deep and at-times edgy exploration of tradition. While it lacks the intriguing background of the debut, Bikoff’s follow-up delivers an equally strong musical statement.

Made in ’68 and reissued last year by the Tompkins Square label, Celestial Explosion uncovered an original exponent of American Primitive guitar. Naturally the playing was superb, and quite impressive was how Bikoff staked out his own terrain amidst the big names of John Fahey, Robbie Basho, and Leo Kottke. But when nearly half a century separates your first and second efforts, there is bound to be some quickly discernible changes.

In this case, the most immediately tangible differences seem tied to an obvious reality, specifically age, and it’s an idea enhanced rather nicely by the titles of the two records; while also conjuring dynamic outer space imagery, Celestial Explosion simultaneously details the arrival of a highly talented young player in no uncertain terms. By contrast, Hallowed Ground places the emphasis on the resources of the guitarist’s inspiration (surroundings, influence, ritual, memory.)

“Rindler’s Metamorphosis,” the opening cut on the debut, is noted for its instantaneous energy and the aggressiveness of Bikoff’s fingers. But Hallowed Ground’s first track “Good Dog, Josie” begins in a rich, contemplative mode, the instrumental assertiveness subtly increasing as the picking is infused with cascading beauty.

However, due partially to the style in which Bikoff excels, his two albums share an unsurprising level of cohesiveness. For instance, “Good Dog, Josie” is the essence of American Primitive unadulterated, and this means the influence of John Fahey is as apparent here as it was on Celestial Explosion. But that record also found Bikoff in command of his own voice. So it is with Hallowed Ground, though in 2014 the individual qualities unfurl with mature grace, a circumstance that’s indicative of evolving mastery.

On one hand, “Good Dog, Josie” is remindful of Fahey’s less experimental outings for Takoma and Vanguard, or even the finer stuff he cut for Rounder. And yet as the piece develops, its bed of delicate dissonance provides a beneficial contrast with the surface similarities to Fahey’s approach. And with “Beware the Lone Star Tick” Bikoff’s use of bottleneck on the Gibson J-200 accentuates his range very effectively.

Digging deep into Guitar Soli at its most bluesy, his slide work conjures up thoughts of both Son House (in particular his ’65 recordings for Columbia) and even prime Ry Cooder as it continues to embody the lush and intricate forward-motion that resides at the heart of this style. But on the concise “Max’s Tune” his fingerpicking shifts into a notably different mode, one lacking in any overt associations to Fahey and company. And it’s a good fit largely because Bikoff’s coffeehouse folk vibe, here perhaps mildly reminiscent of the late Bert Jansch, retains a vital undercurrent of toughness.

A player of considerable finesse, Bikoff importantly never becomes too mild in his comportment, a factor that assists in lending this release a unifying consistency amongst the versatility. And on “Amy in Quebec,” he switches to his Taylor 12-string; as it unfurls the progressions come closer to Basho or Sandy Bull than they do to Fahey.

This is not unfamiliar territory, since parts of Celestial Explosion also contained brief nods to this esteemed pair of departed instrumentalists. But with “Cypress Grove,” Bikoff’s adaptation of a recording from the brilliant country blues figure Skip James, Hallowed Ground offers another of its rewarding turns.

Notably the flipside to “Devil Got My Woman,” the indispensable 78rpm disc James made for Paramount in 1931, “Cypress Grove Blues” resides particularly close to the root of the American Primitive experience. James has been credited as the leader of the Bentonia School of blues playing, but due to the idiosyncratic nature of this sub-genre, with minor tunings and droning, often eerie execution essential facets in its equation, the style’s practitioners number very few. Accordingly, James is the School’s leader and his work stands amongst the deepest of all blues.

Furthermore, his rediscovery by Bill Barth, Henry Vestine, and (hey, wouldn’t you know it) John Fahey came at nearly the same moment another group of indefatigable record collectors turned-up Son House. James’ biographer Stephen Calt considers this the real beginning of the US blues revival. And while James’ music had a huge effect upon Fahey (though they apparently couldn’t stand each other), Bikoff’s adaptation doesn’t really channel this association; in fact, due to the presence of field-recorded environmental sounds, “Cypress Grove” actually brings a more recent comparison to mind.

Namely Bikoff’s stylistic cohort Glenn Jones’ outstanding My Garden State LP from last year. As a folk form, the American Primitive genre is noted for its lack of anxiety over influence, but in this instance the similarity is actually just a matter of parallel development; Hallowed Ground was captured to tape in early 2013 and Jones’ album hit stores last May.

“Cypress Grove”’s pre-sourced nature ambiance, full of crickets and chirps rising up and then disappearing back into the soundscape, is as humid as a mid-summer afternoon. And the method here is somewhat akin to Fahey’s early attempt at musique concrète found on side two of his ’68 LP Requia, though the results of Bikoff’s foray into experimentation, while substantially more modest, are ultimately more successful.

An even closer link to Requia comes through the selection “When the Troutfish Are in Bloom,” its title clearly evocative of an especially splendid piece from the earlier Fahey disc (nope, no anxiety here), though as Bikoff deftly employs National Steel guitar for his cut, bringing deeper shades of Son House along the way, the titular connection is largely a platform of departure.

Surrounding “When the Troutfish Are in Bloom” in the running order are two very strong tracks, “Guzzi on Hallowed Ground” and “Demise of the Zundapp.” The first begins introspectively, only to flower into an abundance of confident notes and chords, and the second finds Bikoff summoning the intensity of his youth and wedding it to dexterous momentum that can only come from decades of experience.

Following them is an exquisite cover of “Sligo River Blues.” Located on Fahey’s self-released first LP from ’59 Blind Joe Death (and its numerous reissues/re-recordings), it originates from the historical intersection of fathoms-deep roots and the passionate student disciples of those sounds as the American Primitive movement was ignited and first began coming into focus. But if a grand tipping of the cap, “Sligo River Blues” only sets the table for the disc’s finest moment, as Bikoff shrewdly brings his long-in-coming sophomore effort full circle.

The lengthiest of Hallowed Ground’s offerings, “Hummingbird Deluxe” is also the most experimental. It finds the guitarist boldly incorporating unconventional tuning to achieve a droning, buzzing effect that relates directly to the fluttering nectar-obsessed creatures of the song’s title. The dissonance in “Good Dog, Josie” can (and for many listeners will) be implicitly absorbed, but the final track places the experimentation much closer to the foreground and does so without losing grip of the approachability that’s inherent to the tradition Bikoff has extended so well across these ten pieces.

Like many classics in the American Primitive style, Hallowed Ground is a highly personal album. It’s right there in the song titles and even more so through playing that’s been sharpened across the span of fifty years. Much justified ballyhoo was made over the return to availability of Celestial Explosion, but with a new year comes a new release from Don Bikoff, and it nearly surpasses his first. Hopefully it signifies a much greater frequency of recordings from this valuable artist.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text