REEL-TO-REEL INSTRUMENTALISM: Cian Nugent.
Consider for a minute how unlikely this is. A two-day fringe festival of mostly solo, instrumental guitar performers — ranging from classically informed disciples of John Fahey to more psychedelic free folk, à la the Sun City Girls — is held in a small Northeastern city. Musicians come from around the globe to play. Spectators drive from out of state to see it, in some sessions pushing respectably sized local venues to capacity. Generally stingy locals, young and old, cough up over $30 to attend. A year later, the same festival expands into a three-day event in a 300-capacity venue, and lands media sponsorship from The Wire magazine, Europe’s bible of electronic and outsider music.
|Time of Rivers Festival | October 10-12 | Sessions begin at 6 pm Friday, and noon & 7 pm Saturday and Sunday | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | afternoon shows $5, evening shows $15 in advance and $18 at the door; festival passes $35 in advance, $45 at the door|
The surprising success of the Time of Rivers Festival — held this year from October 10 to 12 at SPACE Gallery and organized by local guitarist Edward Gibbs and Nemo Bidstrup of the Portland-based label Time-Lag Records — can be credited both to shrewd marketing and Portland’s increasingly robust presence in a niche music scene. In advance, the event was covered by the independent radio stations that most avidly promote such music, most notably New Jersey’s venerable WFMU; and Time-Lag’s notoriety on outsider music Web sites and blogs ensure further notice. (Many of these acts have little or no Internet presence outside of the few sites that devoutly follow them.)
The Time of Rivers sessions I attended last year were immersive and unexpectedly diverse. Visiting acts ranged from the improvised instrumental folk and ragtime of JACK ROSE to the steel guitar and hypnotic raga of the Pakistan-born, Oregon-based ILYAS AHMED, both of whom return to the Festival this weekend. Experimental sounds more familiar to contemporary indie-rock listeners, like the sing-along psych rock of Vermont’s MV & EE and Portland’s CURSILLISTAS, spring up here and there. In their youthful but soulful energy, these ambitious young acts bridge the gap between classical masters and the Devendra Banharts and Animal Collectives that dot today’s indie-experimental folk landscape. The cumulative effect of any given session is dizzying, trying to absorb 80 or 300 years of cerebral guitar sounds. It’s both informative and undeniably trippy.
Fortunately, each night ends with a cathartic bang. The days again conclude with crowd-pleasing (thanks in no small part to a sudden injection of sheer vocal might) sets by local standouts in the field. Saturday night wraps with the chilling and magisterial 12-string guitar of MICAH BLUE SMALDONE, and Friday’s session caps off with an eagerly anticipated performance by his five-member acoustic folk group FIRE ON FIRE, who haven’t played out since June. Sunday night’s intended Festival headliners Earth abruptly cancelled their national tour last week, but the day offers a large used-record fair from 11 am to 5 pm and an evening set from the entrancing Lewiston duo ARBOREA.
A few more visiting musicians to take note of (set times are approximate):
FURSAXA (Friday, 6 pm), with her deep, deliberate voice, first calls to mind Nico, but her baroque and repetitive arrangements are reminiscent of contemporary free-folk stalwarts Charalambides and Alexander Tucker, both of whom she’s toured with on the strength of an album released on Thurston Moore’s (Sonic Youth) Ecstatic Peace label.
CIAN NUGENT (Saturday, 7 pm) is a 19-year-old instrumental guitarist from Dublin whose compositions, recorded on reel-to-reel tape, are disarmingly calm and elegant.
MICHAEL CHAPMAN (Saturday, 11 pm) has been a fixture of the UK folk scene since the late 1960s. His recent work often finds his classical guitar stylings complemented by full band arrangements, loaning a certain grace to his mournful songs, which predict what Bruce Springsteen may sound like in 25 years.
TETUZI AKIYAMA (Sunday, 10 pm) is a Japanese guitarist who experiments with tone and pacing. Both his brash electric and sparse acoustic pieces are meditative and unpredictable.
JOZEF VAN WISSEM (Sunday, 11 pm) deconstructs Renaissance-era lute compositions and has recently worked with James Blackshaw, one of the most admired young 12-string guitarists of the day.
Christopher Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.