Typically, artists build a steady following through accessible records, and then get strange. Steve Gunn has completed this journey in the opposite direction.
The Brooklyn-based guitarist’s foundations are in improvisational instrumental guitar-wrangling in the vein of, say, Michael Chapman, Jack Rose and John Fahey; he’s kept up this experimental side of operations with recent duo records with drummer John Truscinski.
After a stint in Kurt Vile’s band, Gunn’s earliest solo records featuring vocals (released by the esteemed indie imprint Paradise of Bachelors) and collaborations with Black Twig Pickers and definite kindred spirits Hiss Golden Messenger took in heady, expansive treks through the shadier muddy tracks of American roots music.
Since signing to Matador Records, however, Gunn has essayed a hitherto undetected taste for whippet-lean rock ‘n’ roll whose natural habitat is litter-strewn city streets.
Whereas 2016’s Eyes on the Line played it a bit too straight, occasionally stumbling into a generic indie rock cul-de-sac, new album The Unseen In Between strikes a more satisfying balance between tightly structured songs and an alchemical ability to squeeze fresh enchantment from what is by now the most tiresomely overfamiliar of starting points, a bloke clutching an electric guitar.
Long-time followers might well prefer to hear more sprawling older workouts tonight over new material such as the tightly wound, Smiths-ian jingle-jangle of Vagrant. However, Gunn is correct to allow the new album to wield near-total domination over tonight’s setlist. The likes of the gently swaying New Moon showcase a more expressive grasp on melody, with Gunn’s poetically rich lyrics and conversationally dry vocals sounding more potent than ever.
Perhaps Gunn has retained some of the experimental music sphere’s let-the-music-do-the talking ethos. There’s an air of disengagement to some of tonight’s proceedings, the general impression being a rehearsal (albeit one where the band happens to be road-honed) where someone has let observers in, rather than a performance designed to draw in the audience. It could be road-weariness: in one of his very few addresses to the assembled crowd, Gunn tells us this is the second to last show after a month on the road, very much with the air of someone who is quite looking forward to not to see the insides of a van again for some time.
None of this matters when the band is in full flight. It’s indicative of the new material’s strengths that two of evening’s most powerful moments arrive via solo renditions of Stonehurst Cowboy – a moving tribute to Gunn’s late father – and Morning Is Mended. That said, the duelling guitars interplay between Gunn and Will Kidman provides some thrilling peaks, too.
The extensive take on Lightning Field, with the two guitarists gradually adding intensity to the song’s sparse, circularly evolving central riff, favouring texture and tone over anything as predictable as out-and-out shredding, is particularly potent, a cross between Television’s tough and angular jitteriness and Grateful Dead’s country-hued, lysergically laidback jams.