The term ‘guitar hero’ has accrued a ton of negative connotations over the years. However, it might just be the most appropriate way to describe the fluid, free-flowing fretboard acrobatics that Steve Gunn dishes out tonight.
That said, the Philadelphia-born, Brooklyn-based guitarist, songwriter and occasional member of Kurt Vile’s Violators is far removed from the egotistical, flashy trappings of the conventional guitar-slinger. Gunn is undoubtedly a virtuoso. How else could he possibly execute a convincing approximation of the multiple intertwining guitar lines of the studio versions of Millie’s Garden and Tommy’s Congo with just a Telecaster that looks like it has an intimate understanding of the effects of fire on wood to rely on? A string snaps during a jaw-dropping rendition of Old Strange (off 2013’s Time Off), which doesn’t so much depart from the sparse and dusty original as wound up in a totally different, more heady and raw dimension. We barely notice; Gunn simply plays around the missing notes and keeps the jam, which glides by with undue haste despite clocking in at quarter of an hour, cooking as if nothing’s amiss.
Much as Gunn’s tirelessly agile guitar work, delicate and melodic one moment, muscular and overdriven a blink of an eye later, propels the proceedings, tonight’s mesmerising 90-minute set isn’t about showcasing individual skills. Backed by a bassist and a drummer, Gunn’s performance is a testament to the momentum-building importance of near-telepathic interplay. The sprawling but never less than thoroughly compelling jams that ensue frequently see tunes start off loose, even ragged, only to pick up fearsome levels of intensity and rhythmic propulsion as they evolve. There’s not much in the way of showmanship as the musicians keep a close eye on each other for clues and cues. It’s quite clear that the band have almost as little idea how these extended workouts will pan out as the audience, which adds a thrilling element of risk and unpredictability to the proceedings.
There’s no shortage of current acts mining the rich tradition of American outsider guitar music for inspiration. Gunn’s ever-sharpening songwriting pen puts him comfortably ahead of his equally improvisatory peers. A fully deserving winner of Jumbo Records’ album of the year, the songs off Way Out Weather are almost shockingly strong for an artist whose roots are in tune-dodging free improvisation. The influences (the American primitive guitar of John Fahey et al, the raga-folk-rock of Michael Chapman and Gunn’s recent collaborator Mike Cooper, Grateful Dead’s unrestrained mind-expansion, a hint of West African styles, a sprinkle of classic rock) are familiar, but Gunn and co. twist them into unfamiliar, genre barrier-defying shapes. It’s not all about fretboard-milking group dynamics either: a solo acoustic early cut Mr Franklin and a hushed reading of Shadow Bros, with support act Mary Lattimore guesting on harp, provide a spot of rustic balm amidst the more robust workouts.
Clearly impressed by the Brudenell, Gunn ends up the evening by wishing he’ll get to return to the venue soon. On this evidence, we’ll be fighting for tickets next time around. Noodling might be Gunn’s business, but the business is booming.