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Preview: Michael Chapman
By Mark Harrison
Tuesday 2nd February 2010 (Rescheduled from 7th Jan)
Back in the glory days, when just about everything in ‘popular’ music that you might like was being invented, Michael Chapman was very much a face on the scene. In those days, say 1968-1973, music wasn’t compartmentalised. If you went to a gig at a college or if you went to a festival, all sorts would be on the bill, from rock acts to folkies to blues bands to jazz musicians, poets, what became known as ‘world music’ and so on. Your record collection would have included any or all of these. You might have liked Bert Jansch as much as you liked Led Zeppelin or Zappa. And your record collection might well have included one or more of Michael Chapman’s great early albums.
Michael Chapman started off as a recording artist on the Harvest label. It was EMI’s very high-profile imprint for what started life being called ‘progressive’ music and wound up being the mainsteam for a while. There was a place for people like him in this set-up. Some of the artists didn’t necessarily sell many copies (Nick Drake on Island is the ultimate example of that) but they were very much part of the scene. And Michael’s albums were very good indeed and highly regarded. Today, those three Harvest albums (Rainmaker, Fully Qualified Survivor and Window), the second of which was one of John Peel’s albums of the year in 1970 (he championed Michael), very much stand the test of time. Easily available, they are well worth seeking out.
Fast forward all these years, and Michael, like many of his contemporaries in what we could loosely call the ‘roots’ music world, is very much still standing. For some reason, though, he hasn’t quite acquired the legendary status he deserves. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact this his music doesn’t fit neatly into a simple category. It contains elements of folk, blues, country, rock and singer/songwriter. He’s not part of any particular world. He plays a lot of folk clubs, but he’s not a folk act in the way that, say, Jansch is. He does mostly his own material, and although it’s one man and his guitar, it isn’t like a lot of the material done by folk mainstays. There’s always been a bit of a rock edge to Michael Chapman (in the best sense of that) – for example, Mick Ronson was playing on his albums before he got the Bowie gig that made his name.
Since his time somewhere near the spotlight back in those days, he’s been operating pretty much under the radar, but with no let-up in creativity or quality. Dumped by record companies like so many of his contemporaries in the second half of the 70s in the punk panic, he continued to release albums on a succession of small labels and in recent years has been putting them out himself. They’re all very good.
Michael Chapman’s highly individual style is marked by two main features – his quite wonderful guitar playing (he’s up there with the very best acoustic guitar players) and his gruff and husky vocals. The latter, it’s probably fair to say, have got even gruffer and huskier with the passing of time, but the guitar chops are undiminished. Indeed, he has made a few instrumental albums in recent years (Americana I and 2 and Words Fail Me) that are brilliant examples of the genre and also well worth seeking out. Check out my section on him in the piece about guitar instrumentalists for more on that: www.bluesinlondon.com/features/instrumentalists.html
Michael Chapman is still writing really good songs and putting out fine albums. The blues, folk, country and rock elements are all still there, and he remains very much his own man, not tied to any particular genre. If you want a masterclass in acoustic guitar playing (including some highly individualistic slide playing), go see him. The best artists who got going back in the 60s and 70s and are still going are usually still viable for the simple reason that they’re very good and they have something original to offer. Michael Chapman belongs to that distinguished band.