Jack Rose was a vibrant and compelling musical force to those who knew and heard his music. After making his mark as a member of the Virginian experimental group Pelt in the ’90s, Rose moved to Philadelphia in the late ’90s, where he truly came into his own as a solo artist. Rose’s compositions and improvisations for guitar are expansive and daring, rooted in a tradition of American avant-garde music that includes Charles Ives, Skip James and John Fahey. He has released over a dozen solo albums on a variety of labels, including a new one, Luck in the Valley, out this month on Thrill Jockey Records. So when Rose tragically died of a sudden heart attack in December at the age of 38, mid-career, it came as a shock to those who knew him and prompted an outpouring of recognition and celebration of the work he left behind.
New York’s tribute to Rose began February 14th with a full lineup up at Issue Project Room, billed as “A Valentine for Jack Rose.” Legendary British folksinger and songwriter Michael Chapman, who had been intending to tour with Rose this Spring, kicked things off, remarking in between songs that touring with Rose was tough because he always had to play before or after Rose’s inspired sets. Brooklyn’s Steve Gunn, sometime member of the Magik Markers and GHQ, followed by dedicating to Rose the touching farewell song “Over The Hill” by John Martyn, the great singer, songwriter and guitar player who recently passed away. Virginia’s Black Twig Pickers, with whom Rose recorded an album last year,,delivered an upbeat set of traditional old-time tunes. Glenn Jones, whose career arc has been similar to that of Rose’s, starting out with post-rock group Cul de Sac and then moving towards medium of solitary guitar, rounded out the night’s first half with a superb set, including “Barbecue Bob in Fishtown,” a tune that references the Philadelphia neighborhood where Rose had lived.
The second half of Issue Project’s tribute leaned more toward Rose’s experimental roots, the epic drones found on his work for Virginia’s VHS label (home to Pelt and Black-Twig Pickers). Tom Carter, a member of experimental trio Charalambides, took things into the electric realm with a gradually building wall of psychedelic guitar. He recalled Rose cooking eggs in his apartment in the wee hours of the morning, an example of the musician’s seemingly nonstop energy. Marcia Bassett (of Double Leopards, Zaimph, Hototogisu and GHQ among others) was next. With a guitar on her lap, she used two eBows to coax an eerie, shifting drone. Back in Rose’s days with Pelt, she remembered, she had been playing with one eBow, and he had suggested trying two. Pelt itself followed, using two push box organs and three fiddles to close out the night with a steady, enduring and meditative atmosphere.
“Jack Rose! R.I.P.!” gargled Endless Boogie front man Paul Majors in the midst of the band’s late-night, hour-long jam at Bushwick’s Market Hotel the following Monday. The second night of the tribute began with a reunion performance by Double Leopards, a notable noise band conjured from its slumber to honor Rose. The group played with a discipline and attention to detail that rewarded the patience and attention demanded by their two epic improvisations. Gunn appeared again, playing a few tunes with talented slide guitarist Marc Orleans. Chapman returned for the Market Hotel tribute as well, this time joining forces with a surprise guest, British folk songstress Bridget St. John. Together they played a handful of tunes and reminisced about Rose. Chapman then strapped on a Telecaster and helped kick off a set by the No-Neck Blues Band, whose members made their way to the stage one by one to sculpt a brief set of absurdist improvisations that seemed to deliberately resist any notion of musicality. Drummer Dave Nuss balanced a cello precariously atop his drum kit and proceeded to stab at it with a conch shell as the rest of the group piled angular guitar figures and evil synthesizer lines into a unique and utterly original whole. The mighty swamp-monster that is Endless Boogie followed and, with the help of Chavez and Superwolf guitarist Matt Sweeney, riffed the night—and the stirring string of Rose tributes—to a close, leaving listeners ears tired (and ringing) from two nights of music from across the spectrum of the America avant-garde.
Luck in the Valley, Rose’s posthumous release out now on Thrill Jockey Records, ends with a rousing version of Blind Blake’s “West Coast Blues,” which is also the first cut on the debut release by one of Rose’s prime inspirations, John Fahey. It’s an unfortunate but fitting bookend, placing Rose in a lineage of innovative, one-of-a-kind guitar masters. Rose’s passion and dedication allowed him to achieve so much and connect deeply with so many. The songs and sounds performed this February in Rose’s honor were moving evidence of his great impact, as well as a firm and loving declaration that his spirit and music will not be forgotten.