Thanks to my friend Nick, took notebook and camera to The Hobgoblin in Brighton for a rare chance to see Michael Chapman, legendary British songwriter and guitarist from the 1970s. He’s not only still on the road but also booked up for three US tours as a result of this successful record on the Tompkins Square label. That’s because he is the real deal.
‘Michael Chapman began his career on the Cornish folk circuit in 1967. He signed to the Harvest label, home to Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and many others, recording four quasi-legendary albums. The influential ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ was John Peel’s favorite record of 1970, and featured future Bowie collaborator Mick Ronson. (The album is set for reissue on Light in the Attic in February 2011). ‘Trainsong : Guitar Compositions 1967-2010′ is a 2CD collection of 26 recently-recorded solo guitar versions of tunes spanning his entire career. It is a fascinating look at one of the most prolific and profound guitarists of our time. This release should finally bring proper attention to this inspiring and masterful musician. Tompkins Square is truly honored to be releasing this album by one of our favorite musical heroes ! Song-by-song annotation and tunings by Michael Chapman. Liner notes by Charles Shaar Murray, Unseen photos.’
The Hobgoblin has had a make-over since my last visit and the walls are now plastered with covers and pages from underground newspaper of the 1960s and 1970s. I felt right at home.
First guy I spoke to was William Tyler, the support act on this tour, whose also has an album out on the Tompkins Square label entitled Behold the Spirit. With one electro-acoustic, two electric guitars + a raft of effects pedals, he conjured up hypnotic riffs and mesmerising soundscapes that earnt him solid and sustained applause from the enthusiastic (mainly young) crowd.
I pointed out to Will the underground papers and he said “I think I was born in the wrong era”. He says that his dad (a guitarist from Nashville as was his father before him) always said 1968 was a crazy time, but the only rebellious thing his old man did was sneak a joint into a local screening of 2001. “He now smokes more grass than me,” says Will, now in his early 30s. We talk about John Fahey, that great earlier guitar maestro. On stage he says he is honoured to be touring with Michael and to be in Brighton; looking up at the underground papers, he tells the same story about his dad and says maybe some of the ghosts from that time will be in the room tonight.
I catch up with Michael Chapman in the corridor just before he goes on stage. A no-nonsense low-key Yorkshireman with a sense of humour honed by almost 40 years of the road. He’s busier than ever and virtually his whole back catalogue is now available. He laments the fact that he still doesn’t get any royalties from his first four albums on Harvest/EMI.
On stage he’s all business. The instrumentals are complex, multi-layered with sprinklings of virtuoso licks and runs. They are no showy flourishes. Like the man himself, the tunes are cut the bone, road tested. When he sings his voice carries eerie echoes of John Martyn, Stealer’s Wheel and J.J. Cale but his style is all his own. Famed for using a wide range of tunings, he deftly alters pitch and tone. I kept thinking about the literally thousands of rooms and bars this man has seen. Dressed down in baseball cap, blue C.F. Martin 175th Anniversary t-shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, tinted aviator glasses, his whole set is measured, tight and flawlessly executed.
In between songs there’s banter. “This is the lo-tech end of the show” he says as he plugs in his one guitar. On audiences: “I hate it when they go quiet. They might be coming forward.” Of one tune he says: “I wrote this song when dinosaurs ruled the earth.”
Introducing his song ‘Memphis in Winter’, he tells the story of the experience behind the song, staying in the Peabody Hotel and witnessing five ducks emerging from a golden lift, the pets of a millionaire, while outside people were freezing to death in the streets. There’s a story about a woman from Louisiana he met in Guildford and a dunk Brazilian he met in Bradford.
One instrumental, he says, was inspired by three churches – one in Trentino in Italy, one in southern Spain, another in Mexico. “It wasn’t the philosophy; it was just that the sound inside them was wonderful.”
He says: “I have a reputation for deeply miserable songs. Me and laughing Leonard Cohen.” He loves trains and they feature in several of his songs. The one he plays is about the Mallard one of the most stylish and fastest British steam trains ever built, which he saw on Platform 5 of York station. “Sheer glamour” was the phrase he uses to describe it, wistfully.
POST SCRIPT: TUNINGS AND GUITARS
'Dropped D is my favourite tuning,' Chapman reveals. 'I rediscovered it about five years ago and it's hard to get away from-it's an absolute beauty. My theory is that by just dropping it a tone you gain the use of all the bass string in that octave, which is difficult to do in normal tuning. Then you've got the top strings to play lead on with that rhythn facility on the bass.
‘I use DADGAD for things like Shuffleboat River Farewell; Mallard is dropped D and then on Caddo Lake it's DACCGE, which is a really odd one. When I started using tunings everything came into place. Before then I could hear things but couldn't play them. They make my life easier, there's no philosophy behind it.
'I've been using a Larrivee for four years- it's so young, it still thinks it's a tree! You can just plug it into anything and off it goes. I think it has a Fishman pickup, but if it works that's good enough for me. I've also got a '68 Martin D-18 that I bought in 1968 from Guitar Village when D-18s were £70. 'I've got a couple of Strats,including a '74 with a bullet-head truss rod that I love but no one else will tangle with. The neck's loose because I hit someone with it...it's a disgraceful looking thing.
‘Then there's a Telecaster-no home should be without one. I bought it for £40 in bits. I've got a 1958 Gibson ES-175 with a factory-fitted Bigsby, which spends most of it's time in the studio. Andru (Michael's partner) brought me home one of those map-shaped National Glenwoods from North Carolina...it just looks so cool and plays great. I only take one guitar out with me because i'm too lasy to cart more around.
'I use a '56 Fender Deluxe and a '65 Pro Reverb and a Korg A3 in the studio: all the sounds are on a card and you just dial them up. The Pro Reverb lives in the front room because my back is just not good enough to pick it up. I used to use three Fender Dual Showmans and play in a hotel room.'