An Englishman in New York

June 10th, 2009

James Blackshaw – Mercury Lounge – June 9, 2009

(Photo: Fouad Bechwati)

(Photo: Fouad Bechwati)

Following in the footsteps of John Fahey and Leo Kottke isn’t exactly easy. But James Blackshaw convinced anyone in the audience at Mercury Lounge Tuesday night that he has the guitar virtuosity and technique to pull it off. At just 28, he’s already released eight full-length albums and a slew of collaborations and splits. It takes an exceptional talent to stand out in this idiosyncratic subgenre of acoustic-guitar heroes, but Blackshaw does it stage by stage.

Like an unassuming Elliott Smith, complete with tattoos, he sits on a chair, legs crossed, and plays a 12-string guitar literally like no one else. At times the percussive hits of the strings are piano-like. The strumming briefly thunders and rhythms change—it’s a huge, full sound. And there’s a price to pay for this technique, a mark of his commitment that he lives with daily: the striking set of fingernails on his right hand. After a song he apologized quietly in an English accent, “I bet you never thought you’d see a 28-year-old man file his nails onstage.”

The sheer length of the songs is an exercise in endurance. You can feel the concentration from Blackshaw and also from those in the audience, who are deafeningly silent watching this kind of genius. You have to just listen…because the guitar alone is still a compelling instrument and Blackshaw digs it out of its grave like so many legends before him. —Jason Dean