Café Oto, London, December 17
70 years old, and some 45 years into his career, Michael Chapman finally appears to not only be undergoing some kind of career renaissance, but finally receiving the acclaim that should have been accorded him several decades ago as a true pioneer. And about bloody time too: with the deaths in the last three years of John Martyn, Davey Graham and Bert Jansch, people are starting to realise that this gruff-voiced Yorkshireman, alongside his contemporaries John Renbourn, Robin Williamson, Mike Heron, Martin Carthy and Wizz Jones, is one of the last few remaining treasures the acoustic guitar has got. Plus he writes brilliant lyrics. Let’s not mince words, the man is a genius….
Opening his set with a six-minute instrumental (“my Mum used to prefer those”, he quips in the first of many priceless witticisms) may have got the avant-garde cognoscenti of Oto prematurely excited, thinking they might be about to witness a show based around his recent, noise collage-based album, which, after all, did make no.6 in Wire’s albums of the year list) but no, this is Mike’s show, and if he decides you’re going to get songs, then that’s what you get. Quite frankly, I’m relieved- I’d rather hear the warm, pondering tones of 'Shuffleboat River Farewell' and the evergreen, Zep-inspiring 'Kodak Ghosts' than a whole set-full of new stuff anyway, and judging by the rapturous reception the Leeds troubadour gets, he has made the right decision.
Snapshots of his life both preface and permeate each song, giving rare insight into the work of an iconoclastic artist: a humorous vignette about meeting an apparent stranger in Waterstones turns into a quite poignant admission that he didn’t recognise his own ex-wife, and is suffixed by an equally moving (yet never sentimental) song detailing the same. And while he writes many of his songs in similar keys, this creates both an air of connection and a conceptual link, rather than tending towards repetition the way it would do in the hands of a lesser composer. Still, while Chapman’s words may be among the most unique, candid and well-chosen ever penned, and remain my personal favourite aspect of his sound, it’s his guitar playing, possibly even more deft now than in his heyday of '70-'76, that many have come to admire, and they are amply rewarded.
Twirling, swirling, intertwining flurries of notes, endless circular riffs and thrashes of occasional spite merge into one another, while ragtime and blues couple and rub shoulders with the gentlest, most pizzicato finger playing I’ve witnessed on the instrument. The fascination is so intense you could hear a pin drop. This truly is the power of Michael Chapman, and while, like Al Stewart, I’d like to see him play with a full electric band again one day, and revisit some of those tunes, I realise that not only does the budget not necessarily stretch to it, but at this stage in his career, he doesn’t have to: he can manage perfectly well enough on his own, and with more dignity.
Rather than the usual 'Soulful Lady', the encore is instead a mournful Latin-based instrumental dedicated to the recently departed Christopher Hitchens, but the patrons of Oto tonight have little to be melancholy about. At 70, Michael Chapman, the man who for years remained best-known for apprenticing Mick Ronson and thus inspiring half the material on The Man Who Sold The World, is finally becoming better known for his own work, but while he seems to show no sign of slowing down (this is his third London gig alone in two months) he won’t be around forever either, so go and see him while you still can. That’s an order- a fully qualified order.
DARIUS DREWE SHIMON