It’s difficult not to describe Michael Chapman's long career and his vast, masterful body of work obliquely, by reeling off his musical genealogy, the astounding roll call of collaborators, comrades, and disciples with whom he’s shared stages, studios, and his sturdy songs. His emergence in 1967, alongside Wizz Jones, as a self-taught jazz freak, recovering art-school student, and part-time photography teacher on the Cornish folk circuit preceded a series of classic late 1960s and ’70s albums for Harvest, Deram, and Decca. (But whatever you do, don’t call him a folkie; he feels more kinship with the improvisatory outer orbits of jazz, blues, and the avant-garde.)
A peer of legends like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, and Roy Harper—but arguably more mercurial and less classifiable over the long haul than any of them—Chapman is probably the only musician in history to have played and recorded with Mick Ronson, Elton John, and Thurston Moore. (True stories: David Bowie enlisted Ronson in the Spiders from Mars as a direct result of his superb playing on Chapman’s Fully Qualified Survivor, John Peel’s favorite album of 1970. Elton John tried to recruit Michael to his band thereafter, but producer Gus Dudgeon interfered.) Following a millennial resurgence and reissue campaigns by the Light in the Attic and Tompkins Square labels, Michael’s songs have recently been covered by Lucinda Williams, Kurt Vile, Hiss Golden Messenger, Meg Baird, and William Tyler, and he has performed and toured with younger devotees including Bill Callahan, Jack Rose, Daniel Bachman, and Ryley Walker. But this litany of comrades and admirers is only one vector by which to chart the undiluted potency of Chapman’s artistry and its deep currents of influence on three generations of musicians.
His new record 50, titled to commemorate fifty years of touring—and released four days before Michael’s seventy-sixth birthday—stands as a formidable monument of retrospection and introspection in his adventurous catalog (last we counted, approaching fifty records.) A return to the gloriously ragged kineticism of Rainmaker (1969), Fully Qualified Survivor (1970), Wrecked Again (1971), and Savage Amusement (1976), Michael’s first “American record”—an elusive goal for decades—embodies his undeniable late career masterpiece. It is his first album in years with a full band, assembled around the versatile core group of friend and producer Steve Gunn (who also contributes guitar, drums, and vocals): Nathan Bowles (drums, banjo, keys, vocals; Pelt, Black Twig Pickers); James Elkington (guitar, piano; Jeff Tweedy, Richard Thompson), and Jimy SeiTang (bass, synthesizers, vocals; Rhyton, Stygian Stride). Michael’s dear friend and fellow UK songwriting luminary Bridget St John furnished her gorgeous, shivering vocals, a dramatic counterpoint to Chapman’s road-worn gruffness. Gunn’s touring bassist and longtime engineer Jason Meagher (No-Neck Blues Band) recorded and mixed at his Black Dirt Studio in Westtown, New York. The inherently collaborative nature of 50 shows in its ambition and execution; never has Michael ceded such generous control to other musicians, and he sounds both invigorated and liberated as a result. Gunn’s and Elkington’s guitars knit with Chapman’s in easy intergenerational dialogue; sparks fly.