Thurston Moore and Michael Chapman are, on the face of it, a curious choice for a joint tour. Moore is the lanky former frontman of New York art-rock doyens Sonic Youth. Chapman is a grizzled Yorkshire veteran of the 1960s folk circuit. The musical worlds they inhabit appear as remote as Lou Reed and “On Ilkla Moor Baht ’at”.
However, the mystery of the pair’s mutual attraction was cleared up at the Purcell Room last week. It turned out to hinge, as male friendship often does, on the guitar.
First up was Chapman. Now 72, he emerged from a similar jazz, blues and folk background as Bert Jansch and John Martyn. A lauded series of albums beginning with 1969’s Rainmaker intimated he might join their ranks, but his momentum stalled. Instead, he has remained a marginal figure, with a modest but loyal following – among them the ex-Sonic Youth man.
Tonight’s set justified the loyalty. It was a masterclass in acoustic guitar, Chapman using his thumb on the top two strings to create a rich thrumming rhythm, as though moonlighting as his own bass player, while deftly picking out melodies with his fingers on the other strings.
The best tracks were instrumentals, such as a bluesy slide guitar memorial for the US acoustic guitar innovator John Fahey. His singing was less impressive, a clue as to why greater success eluded him. “Shuffleboat River Farewell”, about a Hull-to-Lincolnshire ferry service, was capsized by Chapman’s incongruous impression of Bruce Springsteen with a sore throat.
Thurston Moore also appeared alone with an amped-up acoustic. Life on the road with Chapman has evidently been a bit of a culture shock for the New York avant-rocker, who began his set with a baffled anecdote about real ale. But affinities emerged as Moore’s detuned guitar melodies and rumbling feedback filled the venue.
He only played tracks from his three solo albums – a pointed choice, with Sonic Youth on an indefinite break following the end of his marriage to bandmate Kim Gordon. He delved back to 1995 for his spiky tribute to Kurt Cobain, “Psychic Hearts”, and brought us up to date with nicely meandering, Neil Young-ish numbers from 2011’s Demolished Thoughts. It was a warm, mellow variant on his usual guitar experimentalism.
The set ended with Chapman joining him for a noisy improv session. Moore’s fingers spidered over his guitar as Chapman produced clangorous feedback. Both men looked like adepts of an esoteric art – the alchemical fusion of wood, six steel strings and electricity.