Can we put an age on the acoustic guitar? Or, better still, acoustic instruments? More rhetorically, can we put a price on what either has done for music, which must be only slightly short of everything? In the groupthink mind of music critics right now, we almost can. The acoustic guitar is deadweight, of course. Go ahead, songwriter, pick one up, and you'll have your handicap. The acoustic guitar has had its experimental (John Fahey), popular (Mason Williams, The Beatles, Hank Williams) and traditional (Woody Guthrie) turns. So what's left but bluegrass and James Blunt?
The last two years have been a revelation of sorts, then, proof that the acoustic guitar is still a serviceable foundation for new ideas in music. Some of the names responsible are older—Sir Richard Bishop (Sun City Girls), Jack Rose (Pelt), Glenn Jones (Cul de Sac). But some of them—Mike Tamburo, James Blackshaw, Nick Schillace—are deceptively new. The thing that unites this guitar renaissance is that it's about the guitar-plus: Jones, Rose and Schillace rely mostly on just their guitars, but Rose's incorporation of long, drone-oriented pieces stem in part from his tidal drone ensemble, Pelt, and there's a touch of piano flair floating in Schillace's spry picking. The other class expounds more explicitly: Blackshaw's music is symphonic and bold, sometimes incorporating cello and percussion in dramatic sweeps. Bishop's music—epitomized by his appropriately titled upcoming Polytheistic Fragments—cuts from Charlemagne Palestine to Django Reinardt in half an album's span.
But, of these three, it's perhaps Pennsylvania's Tamburo who's the biggest, most immediate threat to both solo guitar conceit and cessation: Tamburo is an excellent guitar player, sure, his finger patterns and forlorn slides speaking to early Fahey, Delta blues and pop charm. But his intentions are seldom clear, his sound not readily penetrable. On last year's Ghosts of Marumbey, he opens and closes with ideas for solo acoustic guitar, but the intervening 42 minutes wade through thick, topographically shaped drones he built with friends across two continents. Think of it as a record of two shores, with intervening rough waters that make for the best stories. Think of it as one of the most perfect statements to result from the crossover between the poles of Fahey's career. Think of it as revival with the Apocrypha made sacred.
The acoustic guitar never really went away, but—in a critical landscape of one-listen MP3s and aggregators, where gimmick sticks most of all—its popular cachet certainly faded. Its return and exploration is more than welcome.
Mike Tamburo plays Nightlight Thursday, Aug. 16, with Tusk Lord and Triangle improvisational trio Killick, Bivins & Davis. Pay $6 for a 9:30 p.m. start.