Our Puppet Selves – The Wind That Is One Glenn Jones (That I Mean)

This is an old review of a show Glenn Jones played in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa in 2011. Having seen Jones pass through Iowa again relatively recently, I figured I’d post this lil’ write up from the days of yore. As much as things change, they stay the same, and Jones continues to be a force and inspiration to a newly revitalized American primitive scene, ascending from student to elder statesman. The album discussed below – The Wanting – is a fantastic entry point to the world of Glenn Jones, a sprawling masterpiece of the form, but his recordings since, including 2016’s Fleeting, are all excellent representations of both the past and future of American finger style guitar. 

It must be difficult having a common name—as a Bucko, I’ll never know. Yet I think about, say, Brian Wilson (drummer/keyboardist for Johnny Dowd) or even your garden variety John Smith—or Will Smith—and wonder how they can exist in a world of Google-stalking. Glenn Jones, while certainly not a household name, has made quite the reputation for himself in experimental music circles for the last 20 years, yet a YouTube search yields the pole position to the ‘80s R&B singer of the same name. Not to besmirch the other Jones’s slow jam “Show Me,” but I’ll take the steel string slinging, open-tuning using, genre confounding Glenn Jones any day.

Jones appeared on the national radar in the early ‘90s as the guitarist of Cul de Sac, a Boston group boasting an adventurous amalgamation of John Fahey-influenced guitar, pulsing Krautrock rhythms, and the industrial throb of avant-garde electronics. Their debut album, ECIM (1991, currently issued by Strange Attractors), received high critical praise and was followed by four 7” single releases, and an album of selections from practice tapes. The highly-lauded China Gate followed in 1995, and led indirectly to the now legendary sessions with John Fahey.

Glenn Jones had initially befriended the notoriously curmudgeonly Fahey back in the ‘70s, and, recently assembled Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You, a box set of early Fahey recordings and ephemera. The Cul de Sac/Fahey collaboration is, perhaps above all else, a perfect dissemination on the dangers of building up false expectations for those we admire. Though the project did eventually see light of day, and is, more often than not, a very compelling record documenting the twilight of an artist set against the rising vigor of a younger band, it further fractured the group, and Jones began a solo career in earnest.

While firmly planted in the Takoma school (John Fahey, Robbie Basho, Leo Kottke, et. al), Jones certainly adds his own twists on the American Primitive theme on his 2004 debut This Is the Wind That Blows It Out. With a unique approach to the 12-string guitar, accentuating the higher notes of the octave strings against the bass string, Jones often generates a mandolin-styled effect with his right hand. Dissonant clusters and raga-infused sections compliment the traditional high lonesome melodicism. There is a convivial looseness to the proceedings that belies his accomplished technique.

Glenn Jones’s new double LP, The Wanting, shows that though his style is clearly modeled on Fahey’s, he has succeeded in creating his own rubric, much as he’s laid claim to his own name. The Wanting, in addition to continuing a unique, non-clawhammer approach to the banjo that was introduced on 2009’s Barbecue Bob in Fishtown, features an extended collaborative piece with renowned avant-jazz drummer and erstwhile Sonic Youth member Chris Corsano. As a whole, the album shows the continual growth of a musician firmly rooted in place, extending tradition into the present. 

On a quiet fall evening, Glenn Jones brought this sense of continuing history to a well-attended room at Monk’s Kaffee Pub.  Surrounded by a bevy of steel-stringed instruments, Glenn Jones sat down and rested his foot upon a padded stool. Picking up a well-worn 12-string, he proceeded into a set that paid tribute to forbears such as John Fahey and Robbie Basho and explored new pieces and his own back catalog with equal aplomb. Haunting melodies on lap steel guitar and skeletal pickings on banjo were interspersed throughout the set, adding timbral flavor.

Jones’ finesse on the six- and 12- string guitars was rivaled only by the quality of his melodies, which often oscillated between major and minor modalities, adding a lushness to the full-bodied accompaniment. A fine storyteller, Jones also kept the audience’s rapt attention relaying tales about the tunes he played and their inspirations. The intimacy of the performance was maximized by the cozy confines of Monk’s basement.  

Having performed an hour or so of unadorned, unaccompanied American roots music, Jones thoroughly engaged the receptive crowd. As he hawked his merch (including the exquisitely designed John Fahey box set), then packed up his guitars, Jones continued to discuss the guitar, the music, and its history with various attendees. He may not have played a slow jam, but there is one authentic Glenn Jones, and he and Dubuque crossed paths on a Tuesday night.

– Bob Bucko Jr.

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