Vashti Bunyan with Vetiver
The ArtsCenter, Carrboro
Monday, Feb. 5, 8:15 p.m.
You've got to give thanks: Dylan gave Guthrie his due. British blues gave its idols a new audience. Sonic Youth and the avant underground helped resurrect the career of John Fahey in the mid-'90s, inspiring some of the guitarist's best late work before his death in 2001.
The wave alternately (and somewhat problematically) dubbed New Weird America or freak-folk is no exception. It has served as a second-chance launchpad for several forgotten artists partially responsible for its own genesis: Joanna Newsom took Sun City Girls recluse Sir Richard Bishop on a national tour, and Six Organs of Admittance leader Ben Chasny helped Gary Higgins—who made one record 30 years ago—procure a deal with Drag City, one of the most respected labels in the world.
Still, despite issues of disingenuous dilettantism and posturing his career continues to raise, it's perhaps Devendra Banhart who has used his newly risen public star to shed light on his scene's more obscure precedents. Last year, he supplied liner notes for a long overdue reissue of Karen Dalton's 1971 masterpiece In My Own Time, and he split vocals with Beth Orton for a track (coincidentally, Dalton's arrangement of "Katie Cruel") on Bert Jansch's stateside comeback. But, most importantly, he supplied the impetus for industry interest in Vashti Bunyan, a 61-year-old British grandmother who made one album, Just Another Diamond Day, in 1970 before quitting music for three decades of domestic life.
Banhart asked Bunyan to record a duet on his 2004 popular breakthrough, Rejoicing in the Hands. A year later, she was recording with the Animal Collective and preparing a follow-up to Diamond Day. She hadn't been working on music all along (she raised three kids, now ages 20 to 36, in the 35-year album interim), but she had been writing and recording at home with a computer for two years by the time she recorded Lookaftering. She says she had been interested in recording techniques during her first music career, but the hierarchy (or patriarchy) hadn't allowed her to tamper with other people's visions of her own work.
"It was very different back then," says Bunyan of the British recording environment of the '70s. "You were told to record your vocals and go home. The producer was the producer and the engineer was the engineer. It was very frustrating."
Of course, people over 50 make records all the time. But what's most revealing and promising about Lookaftering is its complete dependence on progress and its simultaneous allegiance to Bunyan's wondrous songs and vision for them: She wanted to be more involved in her sound decades ago, and, at last, Lookaftering is full on the feeling that it is very much her album. In 1970, she worked with Robert Kirby, best known for his work with Nick Drake and for providing string arrangements on Diamond Day. But for Lookaftering, she worked with German-born, Edinburgh-based composer Max Richter. She thinks of Richter's aesthetic as a progression of what she did with Kirby 35 years ago: Kirby brought a keen classical sense to her folk forms and narratives, while Richter—a pioneer in (tastefully and reverently) bridging electronic and classical music—brought his own fresh surface to Bunyan's new work. His techniques on Lookaftering—like the granulated bells sliding over the surface of "Here Before," ice gently slipping down a silver slope—are some of his most elegant yet. They advance Bunyan's songs without making them conciously experimental.
Really, beneath the majesty of Bunyan's perfectly tucked words and confiding voice, it's just proof that, for "folk" to go forward, it doesn't have to self-identify as a freak. That's another lesson that Banhart and many of his contemporaries can take away in this subsequent trip through their self-crafted cycle of influence.