By Richie Unterberger

When he moved to Reprise and released Of Rivers and Religion in 1972 (see Collectors' Choice Music's CD reissue of that LP for the story of that recording), acoustic guitar maestro John Fahey had expanded his sound by using additional musicians, some from the folk and jazz worlds. He took that expansion further on After the Ball, which again used accompanists, and indeed some of the same ones that had appeared on Of Rivers and Religion. On the whole After the Ball used fuller ensembles than its predecessor, though it retained an old-time flavor with strains of early jazz, New Orleans Dixieland music, Delta blues, and ragtime. And, like its predecessor, it sank like a stone in the marketplace, remaining obscure even to some Fahey devotees.

    Chris Darrow, who played on both albums, contributing fiddle and guitar to After the Ball, sees the record as "a natural evolution. I think they wanted to take the same format and open it up a little bit, make it a little bit more spacious. I don't know whether there was really anything that would have made a huge change, except for the fact that they did use more instruments." Also retained from Of Rivers and Religion were Joe Darensbourg on clarinet, Allen Reuse on banjo, and one-time Bonzo Dog Band member Joel Druckman on bass, as well as trumpet player Jack Feierman, who also did the arrangements.

    "His music was very attitudinal and atmospheric," notes Darrow. "The most important part about adding anything to what he was doing was to keep the atmosphere and mood correct. I think [a] reason I was involved with both these records is that I understood what that was. And I was going to be sympathetic. I wasn't going to be somebody who was going to try and overtake his particular vibe. I think a lot of guitar players who would have been really good players might not have been able to play with him, because they would have maybe tried to overtake the project."

    Like Of Rivers and Religion, After the Ball mixed numbers that were in the more expected Fahey solo acoustic style with a few Dixieland-style jazz numbers that you could imagine your grandparents cutting rugs to back in the day. "New Orleans Shuffle," "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," and "After the Ball" in particular were unlike virtually anything else Fahey had done in their use of brass and emulation of early-twentieth century jazz danceband sounds. At other points Fahey was content just to add some additional stringed instruments to fatten the texture, as on his take on the blues classic "Candy Man" and the reverberant, infectious Fahey original, "Hawaiian Two-Step."

    The linchpin of the sessions remained Fahey, whose dexterous picking and accomplished slides set a range of moods, from the lovingly nostalgic and the mordantly humorous to dry-as-a-dustbowl vistas. "He was such a dark well of information that any idea, if he liked it, sent him to the candy store," remembers Denny Bruce, the album's co-producer and, at the time, Fahey's manager. "He didn't practice, but if he got interested, or excited about something, it was fun to watch him work it out, bringing it down to just being the only right note."

    Setting the moods in conjunction with the legendarily enigmatic guitarist wasn't done by the book. "I brought a bottle of Southern Comfort to the studio. I can't drink the stuff, but I thought the label was like his music. He drank a liter of 7-Up and smoked lots of cigarettes, but the Southern Comfort was never touched.

    "He had many little rituals to 'get ready' to record. If the session was at six, the engineer and I were there, he'd show up later, and retreat to the men's room for the 'finger-pick' cleaning. This could take 45 minutes. Every finger-pick and thumb pick would be scrubbed and then set out to dry on individual paper towels. Then he would enter the recording studio and set up a stool that would house his ash tray and a liter of either Coke or 7-Up.

    "Sometimes it took two or three cigarettes and most of the soda before he would even say anything. Sensing that my head is about to explode, he'd say, 'Denny, do you want to walk across the street to that liquor store? I saw some whores that looked like they might be fun to talk to.' We recorded on Sunset Boulevard, right smack dab in streetwalker heaven, so of course I needed a break.

    "He'd always be jovial, never discussing what music we might do (this being the solo nights), but one night he just sat in the studio and never played. He'd go back to the bathroom, wash everything again, come back out, and smoke and drink more soda. By now, Doug [Decker], the engineer, who had been up all night before working with a rock band, was really nodding out. I could think of two or three instrumentals we wanted to knock out, and when I suggested doing that, John looked at me with his most bemused smile and said, 'For some reason, this thumb pick feels about three-fourths of an inch short tonight.' I said 'Okay, let's call it a night.'"

    After the Ball, like Of Rivers and Religion, sold far fewer units than major labels such as Reprise were accustomed to, and the company ended its association with Fahey after its release. The guitarist continued to record for various independent labels over the next quarter-century, up to his death in early 2001. It could be expected that an instrumental album such as After the Ball would fail to catch the fancy of the general public, for Fahey has always been one of the definitive cult artists of popular music. Bruce makes that clear when asked whether the stylistic departures of the Reprise LPs were any source of consternation to Fahey's fans, who might have expected their hero to stick to folkier solo constructions.

    "No, not at all," Bruce replies. "In trying to manage John for many years, the same complaint I would get from a promoter was, well, we had him here two years ago, he drew 800 people, and when we brought him back this year he drew 800 people -- the same ones as before!"

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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