There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
There’s a chestnut that goes, “How do you tell if a hippie has been at your home? Chances are, he’s still there.” Like ’em or not, hippies have staying power, and their aesthetic is as persistent as a bongwater stain on a dashiki. So, the appearance of folk guitarist Peter Walker’s Long Lost Tapes 1970 makes sense, even at this late date.
Josh Rosenthal, founder of Tompkins Square Records, initially tracked down Walker, who released a pair of influential, now out-of-print folk guitar records on Vanguard in the late ’60s. In 2007, Tompkins Square released Echo of My Soul, a showcase for Walker’s flamenco style that was his first output in nearly 40 years. Not long after, Rosenthal visited Walker at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., and the guitarist casually mentioned the existence of some unreleased tapes. Rosenthal, impressed by the way the songs expanded and progressed beyond the Vanguard material, convinced Walker to give them a proper release.
In 1970, Walker organized the session that makes up Long Lost Tapes 1970 at the Woodstock home studio of the Band’s drummer, Levon Helm. While Helm was away, Walker bartered with legendary prog rock producer Eddie Offord for equipment rental and engineering, and gathered some musician pals from Detroit, New Jersey, and New York. In the press release that accompanies Long Lost Tapes, Walker recalls, “The police chief heard about [the session], showed up drunk, sneered his contempt for the ‘Hippies,’ and went away.”
After the session that would spawn Long Lost Tapes 1970, Walker gave up gigging to work as a mechanic and a paralegal and raise his family. But with a résumé that includes official music director for Timothy Leary’s LSD celebrations, and a catalog that features songs such as “Meditation Blues” and “Mellowtime,” Walker has hippie cred for life.
Long Lost Tapes 1970 memorializes of the silly, psychedelic ’60s, but thankfully the album has a vibrant energy coursing through it that prevents it from merely being a stiff, waxen curiosity.
Before the 1970 session, Walker primarily played acoustic guitar, sitar, and sarod, so his use of electric guitar here gives these songs some teeth. In particular, “City Pulse,” is a crackling revelation, with Walker’s slightly menacing electric guitar lines augmenting drummer Muruga Booker’s wild percussion. “Camel Ride” is a loping instrumental that evokes an image of its title, kind of like a psychedelic raga version of Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk.”
Long Lost Tapes is undeniably an ensemble piece: Badal Roy’s frenetic tabla and Mark Whitecage’s contemplative flute and alto sax are essential elements. In fact, it seems a shame that the album isn’t credited to Peter Walker “and Friends.” The interplay between artists is that of a seasoned free jazz combo, even though Walker’s guitar is obviously the pacesetter.
Walker’s style is similar to Maryland’s own Robbie Basho, who released some otherworldly gems on Takoma Records in the ’60s. They both had a dexterous finger-picking style and a major Indian influence (Walker studied under sitar hero Ravi Shankar). They also shared a major flaw: Unfortunately, neither guitarist could resist the urge to sing on his own songs.
On previous outings, Walker’s British Folk style of singing at times distracted the listener from his amazing guitar work. On Long Lost Tapes’ “102nd Psalm,” Walker goes for a Hindu chanting thing that bogs down the otherwise buoyant song. For the most part though, Walker and the other musicians seem to be having a blast, and Long Lost Tapes 1970, unlike some of the hippies of the day, doesn’t overstay its welcome.