This is the story of a man and the guitar that took hold of him.
The man styles himself Sir Richard Bishop, a Phoenix-bred guitar master known best for his work with the group Sun City Girls. A Drag City artist – his last outing for the label was 2009’s The Freak of Araby — Bishop also has done extensive work backing label-mates Bonnie “Prince” Billy/Will Oldham and Bill Callahan.
But his biography and all of that context are not our concerns right now.
Bishop was travelling recently and, while in Geneva, found himself searching for a travelling guitar, maybe a Taylor acoustic. He stumbled upon a shop with a clerk in full white lab coat, yeah, no kidding, who said they had no small, travelling guitars. As Bishop was opening the door to leave, quite literally, the clerk said, “Well, we have one,” and led him to a back room.
From the moment Bishop touched the guitar, made sometime in the 1890s, he was told, he was transfixed. He played for a half-hour and couldn’t put it down. It was a drug and it was potent. He came back two days later. After a series of stops and starts – the clerk knew he was hooked, despite an exorbent asking price – Bishop bought the guitar and took it to a live set in Tangier. He had a week of downtime before the show. He had rented an apartment in the Old City. He had brought a digital recorder along for the trip. It was too noisy to record during the day but, at night, the city was quieter and the sounds of the guitar warmed the room as they bounced off the Moroccan tile floor.
And, so, he gifted us with a record, titled, appropriately, Tangier Sessions.
The record, all seven songs, is nothing is not magical – no, exquisite. The guitar sings, and Bishop knows how to work its tender chords. While there are moments of intense fragility (you’ll be weeping within a few minutes of the record’s opening, with “Frontier”), Bishop also wields a tool of depth and tension (riveting “Safe House”), a cloak of reminiscence (the tender, sometimes Frisell-esque “Let It Come Down”) and a purveyor of mystery (“Mirage”). There’s more than a touch of Spanish classicism to his finger-picking and exquisite hammers-on, the way his fingers dance across the fret-board, but his modus operandi is clearly maxi-ethnical. And the disc likewise flirts, more than occasionally, with the sounds of the West and the East – near, Middle, and far. (“International Zone,” which should score a reading of Burroughs’ Interzone, seems to sound all over the place at once, while still having a cohesive vision, no small feat.)
“Bound In Morocco” (and the opening of “Mirage,” perhaps) might be the closest the disc comes to the blues, though blues scales would be too basic a form for what Bishop conjures up on the disc and here in particular. The song, seeming more intense than its 3:35 running time would intimate, is sorrowful and tugs at the heartstrings. So does “Hadija,” which, if Bishop set words to it – the entire disc is instrumental and all of the better for it – would be incredible fodder for a Romeo & Juliet-style story of mournful love, or, better yet, the love story of a widow or a widower, the power of love left behind prematurely.
There’s not a dud on here, not a note less than beautific, not a song that isn’t worth playing twice or thrice. Bishop’s right: there’s something about that guitar. But that guitar’s lucky it’s got Bishop. Would you rather be sitting in a dusty old instrument shop in Europe or in the able hands of a master?