• North Country Primitive

ELKHORN: LIVE FISH (2018, REVERB WORSHIP)

Originally published 19th November 2018


Given the insanely prolific rate of Reverb Worship’s output, it feels something of a misnomer to call it a ‘micro label’, but this – RW’s 409th release and counting – follows the label’s tried and tested formula of batches of 50 CDrs in home-crafted sleeves and with minimal promotional fanfare, so micro-label it is.


Psychedelic American primitivists Elkhorn, a duo of Jesse Sheppard on acoustic and Drew Gardner on electric guitars, have a amassed a small but perfectly formed catalogue in the past couple of years, with excellent releases on Beyond Beyond is Beyond, Debacle and Eiderdown Records. It is the most recent of these, Lionfish, that forms the basis for this set of live recordings. Allegedly created under the influence of a psychoactive substance derived from venom extracted from the spines of the titular beastie, the release comprises of two hallucinatory, semi-improvised long form pieces, the second of which, Fish, is presented in seven versions on this new live album.


This is a concept that could have gone horribly wrong, but thanks to the writing and playing skills and the questing sense of adventure central to Elkhorn’s approach, and to their generosity in sharing the stage with their friends and fellow travellers, it actually goes wonderfully right. You could simply slap on the headphones, lie back and treat the album as one long, blissed-out ocean of drift - and it’s certainly both rewarding and perfectly alright to do so, but there’s far more to Live Fish than that. The album works as a suite, with the midway point, a duo recording from the Spotty Dog, as an aural reference point, around which each previous or subsequent version acts as a distinct and self-contained variation on the core theme.


The immediate standout track for me is the Rhizome DC version featuring Ian McColm and Nat Scheible, evidence that the sympathetic addition of quality drumming gives Jesse and Drew’s music a dimensional lift we didn’t even know it needed. Evidence too, that by the next Elkhorn album, they must a have at least one semi-permanent percussionist working with them. By the 15 minute mark, they are channelling the spirit of a stripped down early Funkadelic, grooving on a slow burning jam.


The other track that makes this an essential purchase is the Philadelphia Record Exchange version, featuring the mighty Wet Tuna, freak folk veterans Pat Gubler and Matt Valentine. If anyone is forging a parallel path to Elkhorn, it is Wet Tuna, and this version of Fish is a deeply satisfying four-way meeting of minds. It could have got messy, but these are people with a mastery of low key, understated psychedelia, who strive to compliment not dominate.


Highlighting these two final tracks is not in any way to belittle or denigrate what comes before or the other artists contributing - Turner Williams, Nick Millevoi and Willie Lane. The bar is set high from the outset - it’s testament to Elkhorn that the album keeps on giving right to the end - there’s no tailing off here, no atrophy by repetition. In fact a special shout should go out to Davis Salisbury, who joins the duo for the Charlottesville track, available, due to space constraints, only as a bonus track on the download version: this makes a fitting coda to the album as a whole, so if you get the CDr, make sure to track it down.