Graded on a Curve:
Wall Matthews,
Spine River: The Guitar Music of Wall Matthews 1967–1981

In the mid-’70s, Wall Matthews was part of the Entourage Music and Theater Ensemble, an association that remains his highest-profile credit. But as Spine River: The Guitar Music of Wall Matthews 1967-1981 relates, the man was active before and after Entourage’s existence, playing mostly acoustically and with considerable range. The first of six volumes of Matthews’ work for guitar that’re all freshly available, only Spine River has a physical edition, and a small one at 500 copies. It’s assured that demand will exceed supply, so if owning records is your jones, procrastination could very easily result in disappointment.

Back in 2018, Tompkins Square released Ceremony of Dreams: Studio Sessions & Outtakes, 1972-1977, a 3CD/ single LP set that did a swell job of corralling the New London, CT-based Entourage Music and Theater Ensemble’s progressive-avant-folk-global-fusion. It also featured notes detailing the music’s relationship to higher education (specifically to Connecticut College) and to modern dance/ ballet, which Entourage often accompanied.

What Ceremony of Dreams didn’t include was the two LPs Entourage cut for Folkways, a self-titled (or untitled) debut in 1973 and The Neptune Collection in ’76 (the first was reissued on wax by Folkways in 2012, while the second is scheduled for reissue later this year). Matthews joined the group in between albums, or I should say rejoined, as he was part of Entourage in their early Baltimore days as a late-night boho bar group formed by saxophonist-keyboardist Joe Clark.

By the point of his reentry into Entourage’s orbit, Matthews had already released a record of his own, or more correctly, he cut a collab with leftfield singer-songwriter and post-Vaudeville hippie-era artifact Biff Rose, but don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves, as Spine River begins in 1967 with “Walk in a Country Rain,” a studio recording of Matthews’ first composition.

The vibrant, sturdy beauty of his post-country blues John Hurt-informed picking in the concise track is undeniably in the same zone as the then emerging American Primitive movement, though the concluding melodic lines set it a bit apart from the main players in that scene. Overall, this initial work is strong enough to register a smidge of disappointment that there isn’t more material of this vintage in this style from Matthews.

While the home demo “Snowfall” jumps forward in the timeline only one calendar year, it documents a considerable progression into post-folky introspection, featuring as much strumming as single-string picking alongside the pretty clear intention to soundtrack imagery conjured in the imaginations of the listener. This approach carries over pretty well into “Kotokes” (described by Matthews as a musical snapshot of his time spent in Mendocino, CA), as the timeline jumps ahead five years to Hamburger Blues, which is the LP Matthews recorded with Rose.

Hamburger Blues received it’s only pressing in 1974 on Sweet Jane Ltd., the label of the late Dave “Snaker” Ray, a singer-guitarist notable as part of the superb Minneapolis-St. Paul-based folk era triumvirate Koerner, Ray & Glover. Checking out the whole of the record, which is currently available on Rose’s Bandcamp page (uncredited to Matthews, although his name does remain on the jpeg of the original cover) in noisy audio files sourced from vinyl, offers a loose assemblage of improvised instrumental tangles on guitar and keys that are pretty far afield from the snippet heard on Spine River.

This edit of “Kotokes” captures Matthews alone, its brevity effectively connecting “Snowfall” to the elevated fingerpicking of “Roping 1” from an unreleased 1977 studio recording. In three minutes (with a savvy slow fade), the piece reinforces Matthews’ growth over the span of a decade, but it doesn’t encapsulate it, as “Roping 2, Duet Version” overdubs Matthews on electric guitar that’s halfway between late ’60s San Fran psych in sunny Sunday morning mode and Popol Vuh gently floating downstream in a raft.

Similar to “Walk in a Country Rain,” I could’ve used a whole album of Matthews in this zone, but side one of Spine River concludes with a redirection into a classical guitar environment, as “E Minor Suite” is presented via waltz, allegro and march selections. Like everything here, “E Minor Suite” was written by Matthews, with it and the four parts of “The Doves of Venus” that open side two highlighting the breadth and quality of his compositional acumen.

Along the way, deftness of finger persists, especially in the second allegro of “The Doves of Venus,” as these ’77-’78 home demos exude warmth that should easily appeal to fans of Guitar Soli. Another ’78 demo, “Wendy’s Piece,” manages to be both contemplative and dexterous in the span of two and a half minutes. It flows nicely into Spine River’s title track, which was an unreleased outtake from his 1981 set The Dance in Your Eye.

That album’s title track, rather expansive here at over five minutes, closes Tompkins Square’s compilation; it and the preceding “Restless” from the same LP drive home consistency across a 15-year span. Checking out the five additional digital volumes (all of which cover shorter timeframes, two of them devoted to a single year each) document Matthews moving forward with purpose, but those seeking an introduction to his work should begin with Spine River, as it succinctly captures his creative evolution from youth to the doorway to maturity.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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