The spring equinox is upon us — track one to the stratosphere in a silent way. Via Sleeping Beauty, 1979.

Sun Ra :: Springtime Again

On April 13th, over twenty guitarists will descend upon John Fahey’s boyhood home of Takoma Park, Maryland, for an event called The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose – A Festival of American Primitive Guitar.

The three-day festival—the first of its kind—is the brainchild of guitarists/scholars Glenn Jones and Jesse Sheppard, and features, in addition to the performances, a panel discussion, rare film screenings, and a social room with community vendors. The festival coincides with the compilation The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose –American Primitive Guitar & Banjo (1963-1974), to be released on CD and triple vinyl via the Craft label on March 23rd.

James Jackson Toth of Wooden Wand recently spoke with co-organizer Jesse Sheppard about the event and the enduring legacy of American Primitive.

Aquarium Drunkard: Tell me how this idea originated. Who came up with the concept of staging the first ever American Primitive festival? How long has such an idea been gestating?

Jesse Sheppard: It seems like the idea of getting all the American Primitive players together has floated around in the backs of a lot of people’s minds over the years. I know some players got together in New York after Fahey died, but since then I don’t think it’s been discussed much. For me, this music is a family and the thought of bringing everyone together was enticing but never seemed practical. It wasn’t until a series of overlapping conversations took place around the middle of last year that the concept of The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose Festival came into existence. The start of it all was really the evening my band [Elkhorn] played RhizomeDC in Takoma Park last June. I was sitting out back with Steve Korn (co-founder and president of the space) and he asked if I’d be interested in doing some kind of solo guitar festival with him. I think he knew that I was close to a lot of the players from the video work I’ve done and setting up and playing shows over the years. The funny thing was that only a few days earlier I had heard from Glenn Jones (guitarist, writer, friend of John Fahey and Robbie Basho and Jack Rose) that he had just completed the liner notes for a 2 LP compilation album of early American Primitive players that was coming out on Craft Recordings. His essay (over 6,000 words) was a deep dive into the history and meaning of the music that had been such an animating presence in his life and in the lives of so many others. So I connected Steve with Glenn and at that point the festival was definitely becoming more real.

What really pushed it into existence were conversations that Steve had with Laura Barclay at Main Street Takoma (the local business association) as well as others. They were aware that Takoma Park was Fahey’s childhood home (in fact Takoma was referenced in a lot of his early song titles and obviously gave its name to his record label), and were excited to help support an event that would bring attention to the creative history of the town. The last piece of the puzzle was the conversation that Kathy Harr was having with her husband, Josh Pfeffer (who is also the festival’s webmaster and graphic designer), about selling their house in Berkeley and moving east. Kathy had run her own booking agency (where she had booked tours for Glenn’s band Cul de Sac) and had been one of the organizers of the Terrastock festivals, but her life had taken a turn into local politics. The move was sort of her return to the music world and she was looking for a cool project to sink her teeth into. So Glenn put Kathy in touch with me. Suddenly there was a team and a concept and some support… we were on our way.


Over and over again on Amen Dunes’ fifth album Freedom, songwriter Damon McMahon punctuates lyrics with the word “man.” “We play religious music/I don’t think you’d understand man.” “I really gotta go/yeah man.” “Pride destroyed me, man.” The word peppers his sentences in conversation, too. It’s this and that “man,” repeatedly. Even while describing the guiding principles of feminist New Mexican artist Agnes Martin, whose creative principle — “I don’t have any ideas myself; I have a vacant mind” — is quoted at the start of the record, McMahon employs a masculine pronoun: “She’s my boy, my kind of artist.”

But McMahon’s relationship to masculinity isn’t one-sided, and it’s rarely celebratory. Like his last record, the sprawling and destined for classic status Love, the new lp opts to grapple with huge themes. McMahon didn’t go in with a design to write about mythical maleness, ego, his parents, and about the process of “relinquishing…various definitions of self,” but that’s what he ended up with, employing a wide cast of characters to set his scenes. Small-time crooks and dealers show up; so does Jesus Christ; so does awesome asshole Miki Dora, the surfer who, after being featured in films like The Endless Summer, hightailed it out of the US to avoid getting busted for fraud.

McMahon finds no small share of ugliness and beauty in these complicated character sketches. The sounds he pairs with them are just as thorny. Working with collaborators like drummer Parker Kindred, guitarist Delicate Steve, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and others, McMahon blends spiky guitar pop with electronic textures, shifting from motorik pulses to bass-heavy boogies. The spectral folk of previous records is still there, but its augmented with post-punk melodies and funky lift. It’s always been tough to describe the sound of Amen Dunes records, even with names like Skip Spence and Lou Reed at the ready, but Freedom‘s the toughest to pin down yet. Conceptually and sonically, it’s an auteurist step forward.

Speaking over the phone from New York, McMahon detailed the way it often feels like he’s channeling his songs as much as writing them. “There’s no use in being close-hearted,” he sings in “Skipping School,” and speaking with the artist, it’s clear he’s out to free himself of any notions — masculine or otherwise — that would keep him from staying all the way open. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve made a couple of classic albums as Amen Dunes, but Freedom sounds effortless in a way that illustrates how hard you must have worked to make it. How does this one feel different than the others?

Damon McMahon: I’ve never focused so hard on crafting music before. I gave myself time to revise and re-approach all kinds of things. I mean, even just the songs themselves. The writing of the songs on an acoustic guitar took me at least a year of consistent writing. It was an endless iteration of each song, and then once we got to the recording process, that’s a whole other stretch of time, and then vocals, lyrics, and mixing, I mean…it was extensive.

AD: At one point you had recorded a version of this record, but then scrapped it. Why?

Damon McMahon: Well, it just didn’t sound inspired, man. There wasn’t that divine spark in it, and that led it to sounding bad and the takes not being good and a little limp. It just didn’t have the energy, and I don’t think I was ready at the time. Also, it wasn’t as heavy-duty of a recording scenario as we ended up getting, so I think that affected it, too.

AD: When you go to a place like Electric Lady, as a music listener and fan, what does it feel like to make music in a space like that?

Damon McMahon: Electric Lady was a real gift. Man, that place.


“We weren’t people that simply obeyed. You could say that we sidestepped all the house rules, the recording studio; we simply broke away from situations that weren’t convenient. I have always believed in what I do.” L.M.

Born Luís Carlos dos Santos, Brazil’s Luiz Melodia died last summer at the age of 66. Singer, songwriter, player and actor, Melodia’s professional career as a musician began in 1963 and continued until his death, working within and around various permutations of samba, soul and MPB. While Melodia’s 1973 debut, Pérola Negra, has long been one of my favorite Brazilian records (read: definitely check this out in full if not yet hip), its follow-up, 1976’s Maravilhas Contemporâneas, was a later discovery and one I’ve found myself returning to of late while working on a current project. So, here’s a taste — side one’s final track, “Baby Rose”, where things begin stretch out and get…loose (hey, sitar). It’s nearly spring, enjoy.

Luiz Melodia :: Baby Rose


Over and over again on Nap Eyes’ third lp I’m Bad Now, songwriter Nigel Chapman owns himself. In album opener “Every Time the Feeling,” he’s a “space case,” a “loser in a meaningless place.” It’s worse in “I’m Bad,” where he’s a “hated son,” “a disappointment” who’s “so dumb.” In “Dull Me Line,” he’s “bored and lazy.” It would seem Chapman is hard on himself. But here’s the rub: the new record, which follows 2015’s excellent Whine of the Mystic and 2016’s  Thought Rock Fish Scale, is the band’s warmest and kindest yet. Not only does Chapman write with more interrogative passion about his inner life than many songwriters twice his age, here he expands outward, unpacking religious themes on “White Disciple,” pondering connection to others on “You Like to Joke Around With Me,” and wondering what becomes of all our big ideas on the beatific “Sage.”

The lyrical growth is matched by the group’s expanded musical sensibility. Over the shuffling rhythm section of bassist Josh Salter and drummer Seamus Dalton, Chapman and guitarist Brad Loughead trade shimmering chords and striking melodies. Reliable comparisons to the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers don’t fail this go-round either, but more than ever before the band’s instrumental interplay feels like its own thing: restrained, considered, and riveting. “Please don’t ask me to throw my work away,” Chapman sings over Salter’s rolling bass on album highlight “Judgement,” and it’s clear why. Nap Eyes is doing the best work of its career with I’m Bad Now.

Recently, Aquarium Drunkard called Chapman up from his place in Halifax, to discuss the spiritual themes of the record, dissect slang terms, and the relative values of turning inward and outward. The conversation has been edited for clarity and cohesion.

Aquarium Drunkard: I love that the record is called I’m Bad Now. It’s a great contrast to imply. To say “I’m bad now” means, “I was previously not bad. Now I am.”

Nigel Chapman: People tend to see things in binary terms often.  With dichotomies in general, with binaries in general, and then specifically [in regards to] badness and morality. That’s something I’ve felt pretty viscerally at the core-of-my-being. I either feel like a good person, like a kind person or a sincere person, or I feel like a totally false or selfish or phony person. I think having a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of that tendency is a good way to step back from it a bit and look at yourself. And also not expect yourself to be some kind of non-human, you know? A perfect being. Everybody has badness. As you’re growing up, there are a lot of things you need to learn. But you’re a flawed human being, and once you’ve learned [those lessons] you don’t have to hate yourself for it [or get caught] in that pattern of thinking. The title reinforces that, for me anyway. But Seamus [Dalton], our drummer, is actually the one who created that title.

PP Arnold photo credit Tony Gale

The story behind soul singer P.P. Arnold’s “lost” 1971 album The Turning Tide is, much like the tale of P.P Arnold herself, woven through with twists, turns, serendipity and historic music figures. Born into a family of gospel singers in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, she was singing in the church by age 4. By age 19, she’d find herself in the thick of London’s swinging 60s music scene, in the company of artists like Jagger, Hendrix, The Small Faces and, on these recently-surfaced recordings, Barry Gibb, Eric Clapton and a nascent Derek and the Dominos.

A music career was never her intention. An unplanned teen pregnancy forced the young Patricia Arnold into a bad marriage. One day in 1964, a friend and two other girls were booked to audition as backing singers for Ike and Tina Turner’s Revue. When one of them dropped out, the friend begged Arnold to fill in at the last minute. At the audition, Tina told them they’d got the gig, leaving Arnold in a tricky spot. Arriving home late, only to face another confrontation with her abusive husband, Arnold decided to put her trust in divine intervention and take the opportunity to get out. Soon she was touring Europe as an Ikette and opening for The Rolling Stones.

Mick Jagger became a fan, suggesting she go solo. She could stay in London, he said, and he would get her a deal with Immediate Records, the label started by Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. She agreed, and “The First Lady of Immediate” was born.

Among her early recordings was the original version of “The First Cut Is The Deepest” (penned by Cat Stevens, who would record his own version later that year) and “Angel of the Morning”. The latter, a hit for Merrilee Rush in the US, very much belonged to Arnold in the UK, where her’s remains the definitive version. She would become a mod icon via her affiliation with Immediate and her collaborations and tours with The Small Faces (they wrote and played on her single “(If You Think You’re) Groovy”, while she sang on several Small Faces tracks, including “Tin Soldier”, and she also dated frontman Steve Marriott for a time). Her main backing band, featuring Keith Emerson on keyboards, would go on to become The Nice. Later, and much to her surprise, she was embraced by the Northern Soul scene in the 70s when several of her early tracks–in particular 1967 single “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”–became staples at all-nighters across England.

Hailu Mergia_credit_Piotr Gruchala

Hailu Mergia wants you to know: He was always ready to return the spotlight. He was just waiting for someone to ask.

And now that they have — now that a series of people have, actually — the 71-year-old keyboardist’s return is ready to evolve from rediscovered curiosity to full-blown real-life comeback, highlighted by the release of Lala Belu, Mergia’s first album of new material in two decades.

To fully appreciate this stage of his career, though, you have to know Mergia’s story. It’s now relatively well-known: He spent the first half of his life in his native Ethiopia, playing keyboard in the Wailas Band, a popular Addis Ababa-based jazz and funk ensemble that, in 1981, became the first modern Ethiopian band to tour America. During that tour, Mergia and three of his band mates decided to remain stateside rather than return to Ethiopia, then wracked by famine and ruled by the Derg dictatorship. Mergia settled in the Washington D.C. area, started driving a taxi and stopped playing music professionally, choosing instead to cart around his keyboard in the trunk of his cab and practice when passengers were scarce.

That’s where Mergia’s musical story seemed to end, until a few years ago when he heard from Brian Shimkovitz, an American who carved himself a niche online by highlighting obscure African music on his website, Awesome Tapes from Africa. Shimkovitz had converted his hobby into a record label and wanted to reissue Mergia’s 1985 one-man-band classic Shemonmuanaye. Reissued as Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye, the album finds its namesake in exploratory mode, fusing accordion, Rhodes piano and modern synthesizers with traditional melodies of Ethiopia. The result is a set of songs that are warm and woozy, relaxed, low-key funky and strangely beautiful.

The release sparked wider interest in Mergia’s music, prompting the artist to start playing out again, most often with D.C. drummer Tony Buck and bassist Mike Majkowski. Awesome Tapes has since reissued two more archival releases: the 1977 Wailas Band album Tche Belew and Mergia’s 1978 collaboration with the Dahlak Band called Wede Harer Guzo.

Which brings us back to Lala Belu, a six-track album featuring three traditional Ethiopian songs, three Mergia originals and a jazzier, more upbeat sound than Shemonmuanaye, thanks largely to the rhythm section of Buck and Majkowski. But the album still sizzles with Mergia’s inspired, roaming sound. AD caught up with Mergia at his Fort Washington, Maryland home, where he spoke by phone about Lala Belu, driving a taxi and keeping his musical skills sharp.