Until last year, Nathan Salsburg was primarily known as an archivist and producer of traditional music, curating work on East Village Radio, Drag City sublabel Twos & Fews, and the Alan Lomax Archive, among others. But with a pair of releases in 2011 – the solo guitar affair Affirmed, and Avos (Tompkins Square), duetting with Jim Elkington – he stepped out in a major way as an artist, which is a blessing for all of us.
The first thing you might notice about opener “Sought & Hidden” is Salsburg’s incredible fingerstyle technique, with precise timing and crack phrasing. At first blush, Salsburg will have to acknowledge comparisons to John Fahey on this point, but really he’s related to the Grandmaster only tangentially. Because the second thing you notice is the tune’s striking melody, which sucks you into a very personal musical journey that goes almost deeper than one could possibly expect.
Amidst the opener’s celebratory bounce, and the dancing “New Bold Ruler’s Joys,” there gradually emerges a subtle foil – a sense of wistfulness, disappointment, or even dread. These uncertain feelings coexist with the jauntiness of a tune like “Fraught with Hornpipe,” possibly the brightest number leading up to the multipart “Eight Belles Dreamt The Devil Was Dead.” By the time the stage is set for the only vocal tune on the album, “The False True Love” – a deeply felt lament for a dead lover – it’s as if the narrator is trying to step out of time, reflecting on tragic loss, taking stock of what’s left, as time continues to smooth everything over
Although the album is mostly instrumental, I don’t use the word “narrator” lightly here; more than any album I’ve reviewed in recent memory, Affirmed tells a story. On the surface, of course, there is literal inspiration for the songs – the racehorses Affirmed, Bold Ruler, and Eight Belles. A quick survey shows that the three led diverse careers. Affirmed is (still) the most recent Triple Crown winner, in 1978. Bold Ruler was an extremely decorated, exciting, but occasionally disappointing performer in the ‘60s, and Eight Belles barely got her start before being injured after the 2008 Kentucky Derby and euthanized on the spot, a gruesome event that sparked debates about whether thoroughbred horses were, like football players, getting too big and heavy for their own good.
The quality that the equine trio seems to share is great promise, and it’s this sense of promise and hope that informs the story Salsburg is telling. Sometimes fulfilled, sometimes dashed, sometimes gone unimaginably wrong, and never quite living up to itself, it’s like life itself. Salsburg’s eight tunes convey this vividly.
Clearly, on top of being a master guitar technician and composer, Salsburg has been absorbing the richness the music he’s been curating, and his first solo addition to the canon should be most welcome.