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Jack Rose - An Appreciation By Frances Morgan
Frances Morgan , December 17th, 2009 06:29

Frances Morgan mourns the loss of a unique talent. Live picture by Laurent Orseau

Jack Rose's 'Red Horse' is a piece of acoustic guitar music that takes a good sixteen minutes to unfold, from the stealthy opening chords through to the rhythmic picking that thrums and chimes and gathers pace and momentum, almost tumbling into disorder occasionally but for a solid, lilting octave pattern that provides its bassline. To listen to its sure and graceful tread through time and space, as I'd listened to it for comfort many times before, on the day I heard of Rose's sudden death, was both beautiful and incredibly sad.

Virginia-born guitarist Jack Rose died from a heart attack on 5 December, aged 38. In the seven years since he recorded 'Red Horse' – the title track of his first album on Eclipse records, Red Horse, White Mule – he amassed a number of albums that are among the definitive guitar recordings of the decade. I could go so far as to say 'and beyond', but perhaps you shouldn't trust me on that because I'm not so good with acoustic guitars, at least not the American Primitive style set in place by the pioneering John Fahey and imitated many times over and influential – it couldn't not be – upon Jack Rose himself. There's much to admire in Fahey's playing, and that of the artists whose music he released on the Takoma label, but I always found it too fussy to truly love, preferring the older, more raw recordings of 1920s and 30s blues: Blind Willie Johnson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Charley Patton and others whose picks and slides seemed to hint at a world of chaos and deep-running, almost cosmic despair just kept at bay by their technique but never quite defeated by it.

It was this tension and sense of an encroaching wild emptiness that I felt I heard in Jack Rose's music, on Red Horse, White Mule and its companion Opium Musick, which VHF records brought together as Two Originals Of Jack Rose in 2004. I knew little about him and would never have presumed to describe the emotional state in which he approached his music-making, but it was all there in the sonics and in the texture, the attack on strings that seemed strung a little too loose, the thunk, occasionally, of guitar too near microphone, this instinctual sense of pace that could be strung-out or meditative or galloping from one refrain to the next. Alongside the American-style picking were tracks such as 'Yaman Blues', conversations between Indian raga and Mississippi blues that seemed wholly unforced; yet, lest this sound a little too new age-y, these more drone-led tracks (also heard to great effect on compilation Raag Manifestos) demonstrated a sensibility to noise and to atonal, experimental music, and how it can be worked into the most delicate of melodies to create harshly gorgeous structures such as Raag Manifestos' 'Tower Of Babel'.

This exchange between devotional drones, experimental noise and traditional blues was one that Rose began in Pelt, the trio he joined in 1993. Pelt were my first exposure to Jack Rose, via the superlative psychedelic albums Techeod, Ayahuasca and Empty Bell Ringing In The Sky. Hearing these for the first time around 2003 or so blew my mind wide open to the possibilities of making DIY transcendental music, as Rose, with Patrick Best and Mike Gangloff, conjured cavernous spaces and earth hums with scraped, bowed and plucked strings, both acoustic and electric, and odd, overtoned metallic chimes. It's hard to describe Pelt without sounding like a dirty hippy, but that's my fault because really there's something very punk about their music; so pragmatic and necessary and urgent, even when there's a singing bowl in the mix.

And the attitude remained thankfully the same as Jack Rose concentrated more upon his solo career. Upstairs at the Garage, London, one night in 2004 or 5, growing ever more irritated at an inattentive audience chatting through his friend Glenn Jones' understated set, Rose's choice of audience heckle was inspired – “Limey no-teeth motherfuckers!” – but I think we would have stopped talking anyway. Then he put a small Hawaiian guitar flat across his knee and started to play slide. He seemed too big, too angry, to play such a sweet thing, but he did so, beads of sweat dripping from his hair onto the body of the instrument, pulling out each sharp, tremulous note like someone telling you something they had waited a long time to say. The following summer, I picked the music as my dad and I drove all night from Yorkshire to Pembrokeshire. I wanted his opinion, as a classically trained guitarist, on Jack Rose's Kensington Blues, then recently released, and he told me all the things Rose was doing 'wrong', and while we both came at that word from different angles (from me it's usually a compliment) we both arrived at the same place of admiration, feeling the intent every charged, elastic note as we drove into the morning. This was not music to relax to, even if its quieter moments could make you feel safe and complete.

At the end of a decade that seems to be coming to a particularly futuristic close, with a resurgence of interest in synthesiser musics of all stripes, we should not forget that there was quieter wave of traditional, acoustic forms coursing throught the 2000s. The middle of the decade saw a sort of historically aware but fundamentally imaginative approach to acoustic and folk music that, while it generated its share of dilettantes, produced some maverick, quite luminous, tough talents, people such as Josephine Foster, Alex Neilson, Alasdair Roberts, Jack Rose – who wrought all they needed from hands, wood, breath and fire. It is the saddest thing that one of the strongest voices of all will not be here in the decades to come.

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