Sean Smith crafts a new American Primitive

In the mid-'60s, the phrase "Berkeley guitar" was essentially synonymous with the late John Fahey — the iconic Takoma Records founder who devised the mystical "American Primitive" style (complex fingerpicking and unique tunings merging Appalachian folk and early blues with classical, jazz, and world-music textures) — and such contemporaries and disciples as Robbie Basho, Sandy Bull, and Peter Lang. As of this week, Berkeley Guitar is also a fantastic new album spotlighting three young, tremendously skilled local players — Sean Smith, Matt Baldwin, and Adam Snider — carrying on in that tradition and currently leading a vital new acoustic-folk scene in the Bay Area.

"We've gotten to a level of technical ability and songwriting where we can be considered just as good players as [our predecessors], even if we didn't create the genre," says Smith, 25, who produced the album and contributes three songs (Baldwin and Snider kicked in four each). "We used those records as, like, our instructors, but now we've completely digested them and it allows us to move on. Those guys pioneered the technique and concept, but I feel like we're pushing it forward."

To that end, Smith — who grew up in Monterey and played in no fewer than 20 Pavement/Archers of Loaf-influenced bands until growing frustrated with that sound — shrewdly incorporates melodic and harmonic ideas drawn from indie-rock, punk, and metal into his sometimes-serene, sometimes-dark style. He really developed his aesthetic after Baldwin, a childhood friend, turned him on to Fahey and finger-style guitar. "It was extremely difficult to get the technical thing down, but once I did, the way Matt explained it to me was like, 'You're your own band now, and this is just as heavy as Sabbath, and you can express anything you want within this.'"

Berkeley Guitarists ( L-R): Sean Smith, Adam Snider,  Matt Baldwin.
Sabina Holber
Berkeley Guitarists ( L-R): Sean Smith, Adam Snider, Matt Baldwin.


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And, Smith adds, the particular sense of creative freedom intrinsic to the Bay Area gives him the same feeling Fahey must have felt here four decades ago. "The vibe is inspiring, it's kind of a fiery place." He starts to chuckle and adds, "Well, maybe a subtle fieriness. There is passion here, but it's not like anyone's trying to prove anything to anybody. We're all just trying to get to the bottom of something within ourselves, to find that high level of artistic expression."

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