Beyond Fahey

After paying homage to the influential steel-string player, Berkeley Guitarist Matt Baldwin tries psychedelia.

On the 2006 compilation Berkeley Guitar, three very talented steel-string guitar players, all friends who migrated to Berkeley from in and around Monterey, displayed their love for John Fahey and his legacy on Takoma Records. Matt Baldwin was one of those guys (along with Sean Smith and Adam Snider), but when you approach his debut CD, you pretty much need to forget what Berkeley Guitar led you to believe.

That compilation, while a very fine set, was trying to spread the word about this revival of solo steel-string guitar playing, centered in Berkeley, the longtime home of Takoma. While that’s all very fine, it turns out that Baldwin and company are all much more than just solo guitarists. Smith’s latest release featured quite a few guest musicians, and Baldwin’s Paths of Ignition is layered with overdubs, features vocals (on one tune), and is ripe with psychedelia — all in tremendously good way.

The disc opens in the solo vein, with an extended take on Krautrock legend Neu’s “Weissensee,” when suddenly an electric guitar sneaks in. Hey! What happened to John Fahey? Oh yeah, Fahey played electric too. “I’ve been working more on electric guitar lately,” Baldwin said. “I grew up listening to Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer. I’ve always loved Priest.” But he looks suspiciously like a ’60s holdout, with long straight blond hair held down by a headband. He has an earnest demeanor, and clearly thinks a lot about music.

His playing can go from doubling the acoustic fingerpicking to a wailing, electric, metal-influenced lead. It’s pretty stunning. “The thing is that when I play in standard tuning I have a pretty generic blues-rock sensibility,” he said. “So I did all the solos in other tunings, which helps me develop a more original lead-guitar melodic sensibility.”

While evoking some music of the past, what with the Fahey influence, as well as a certain Krautrock and prog kinship, Paths of Ignition is utterly original. There’s a radical reinterpretation of a Judas Priest song called “Winter,” with Baldwin singing as if in an echo chamber. Then there’s the solo tour de force of “Rainbow.” Throughout, Baldwin’s guitar playing remains understated yet amazing.

Produced by Baldwin and local songwriting/recording madman Sam Flax Keener, Paths of Ignition is a project of love and inspiration. “What’s fun about these songs is they capture that moment of when you create something,” Baldwin said. “I just went in with really basic ideas and started messing around, and Sam would say, ‘What if we did this?’ I would try it out, and say, ‘What if I do it like this?'” He laughs, then continues: “Then we would hit some wall, and we’d both be thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’ So we’d go get some beer and do another take and it would all jell!”

After touring for Berkeley Guitars and doing countless solo shows around the Bay Area and down in Big Sur (where the Folk Yeah! series is gaining increasing fame), Baldwin says his next step will be a full band. Spawned by Paths of Ignition‘s explorations into electric territory, the new project will consist of musician Kephera Moon playing a chopped B3 Hammond and piano bass, and Keener on drums and doing some delay effects in real time. When asked if the electric concept will open up more venues, where people talking won’t interfere with the quiet acoustic guitar, he laughs. “That can be nightmarish! On this tour there were certain nights, like in Nevada City, it was a really hard-drinking night. During the entire set, I could hear people yelling ‘Jaeger!'” But then he extols the virtues of playing in places like Big Sur, where a room of one hundred people can get dead silent and focus on the actual music.

So perhaps Baldwin isn’t leaving the Fahey ghost behind entirely, but rather broadening to encompass more than the Berkeley Guitar idea. If the current indie scene has taught us anything, it’s that there’s still plenty of need for organic, tweaked-out folk-oriented music, and Baldwin has a voice that’s original and distinct even within that parameter — more like a worldview than just a few guitar tunes. Iconoclast? Yes. 

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