Chuck Johnson's microtonal "American primitive" guitar, Friday at Constellation

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Chuck Johnson
  • Courtesy of the artist
  • Chuck Johnson
Chuck Johnson's recent LP Crows in the Basilica (Three Lobed Recordings) is one of the best records I've heard this year. Like Glenn Jones and the late Jack Rose, two leading lights of the "American primitive" guitar style that Johnson practices, he has a diverse musical history that both precedes his work as a solo acoustic guitarist and enriches it.

In the 90s, Johnson lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and played in a series of bands that never quite fit into the town's indie-rock scene. Spatula used ambitious structures to transcend its power trio lineup; the all-acoustic Idyll Swords leaned on exotic instruments and athletic tempos to forge something like a cross between Gastr del Sol and Sun City Girls; and the instrumental Shark Quest updated the twang of the Raybeats and their ilk, applying it to cinematic ends.

Johnson has carried on designing sound and composing incidental music for documentaries to this day. He also played improvised guitar solos under the name Ivanovich, but switched to circuit bending about a decade ago. His growing interest in electronic music took him across the country to Mills College, where he studied with Pauline Oliveros and earned an MFA in 2009. But at the same time that Johnson was delving into composition and electronics building, he returned to the acoustic guitar.

He debuted his new approach to the instrument on the compilation Beyond Berkeley Guitar (Tompkins Square), released in 2010. His contribution, "A Struggle, Not a Thought," uses contrasting sections, rather like John Fahey did, to create a sense of apprehension. But where Fahey let the overtones of his guitar radiate in every direction, Johnson seems more in control. This mastery of the minutiae of tonal relations is part of what distinguishes Crows in the Basilica; even when Johnson is honoring folk guitarists Elizabeth Cotten and Hobart Smith by elaborating upon their licks, he's also marshaling microtones with the adeptness of Terry Riley or Tony Conrad. The result is music that has both an engaging, rustic familiarity and a hypnotizing tonal richness. Johnson has toured both coasts this year, but he hasn't played his own music in Chicago since 2001. This Friday he appears second on a bill with Spires That in the Sunset Rise and Health & Beauty at Constellation. Crows in the Basilica is streaming in its entirety below.

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