Recording of April 1993: A Meeting by the River

RY COODER/VISHWA BHATT: A Meeting by the River
Water Lily Acoustics WLA-CS-29-CD (CD only; LP available eventually). Kavichandran Alexander, prod., eng. AAD. TT: 39:48

I probably shouldn't be writing this review. I feel pretty passionately that a music reviewer should have a musical genre down if he's going to tackle one of its records, so how can I possibly cover this one if the sum total of my experience with traditional Indian music is the Ravi Shankar side of The Concert for Bangla Desh?!

The answer is, because A Meeting by the River isn't traditional Indian music. I'm not sure exactly what it is at all, except that it's magic music of a rare and graceful curve that completely captivated me the first time I heard it; I've listened to it dozens of times since, at all hours of the day in all permutations of attentiveness, and I don't feel as if I've even scratched its timeless and elliptical surface.

Here's the lowdown: Grateful Dead luthier and Alembic Guitars founder Rick Turner turned his pal Ry Cooder on to a Water Lily Acoustics record of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, an Indian slide guitarist. Ry freaked, the gears turned, and soon he and Vishwa were sitting barefoot with their slide guitars on a giant Persian rug inside Christ the King Chapel in Santa Barbara, CA, while our hero Kavi Alexander threw up his tubed Blumlein pair and fed them spicy homemade curries and fresh Indian tea to grow the vibe.

The vibe. If one word sums up A Meeting by the River, it's vibe. Records used to be filled with vibe of some kind or another, sounds that suggested feelings and emotions and whole universes of modal patterns that made listening to the record feel like stepping into a whole 'nother zone. But I've become so accustomed to the modern musical aesthetic of 2-D shallow disposable nothingness that when a record like this one—which positively drips with vibe—crosses my path, I'm genuinely taken aback.

Like I said, this isn't traditional Indian music. Without so much as a half-hour between their first introduction and the start of the session, Cooder's Tex-Mex border slide and Bhatt's shimmering Indian quaver meet on that laughing white sliver of moon that smiles peacefully at the segregation of musical categorization and gently blows it off into the cosmos where it can do the least harm. As the session progresses, Ry's guitar lines start bending their heads toward India while Vishwa's get bluesier; the two seemingly disparate guitars eventually embrace one another and intertwine until you can't tell where one leaves off and the other begins. Backed by the rhythm section of Sukhvinder Singh Namdhari on tabla and Cooder's 14-year-old son Joachim on the bongo-like dumbek, the two master slide guitarists converse in ancient broken melodies and weave a spell that begs for Sag Paneer, darkness, and infinite repeat.

Why does this A Meeting by the River juice my lizard so mightily? What sets this disc above virtually all similar recordings is that the entire session was totally improvised; the sounds on this record are two musicians meeting, delivering graceful introductions, complimenting and complementing each other while laying out vast landscapes of sound without a trace of inhibition or awkwardness. A Meeting by the River is the essence of that most powerful of music's ingredients—communication—and while the music itself is often tranquil, the message will carry you away, heart pounding and monkeybone throbbing.

For a recording to make Stereophile's "Recording of the Month," it's got to deliver the sonic goods as well as the musical mojo. I'm here to tell you that A Meeting by the River is just flat-out astounding, one of the most uncannily real recordings I've ever heard. I haven't heard the LP yet, but the CD is a mind-blower: mastered directly from a CD-R transfer of the analog master, this is the best-sounding acoustic guitar recording I've ever heard. From the most subtle string-scrape die-offs to the unleashed dynamics throughout "Ganges Delta Blues," the sound just breathes life into the room and makes the best-sounding discs in my rack sound grainy and flat by comparison.

A Meeting by the River is the first genuine Audiophile-Approved recording whose spirit matches its sonics; it takes me on a trip every time I listen to it, and recommendations just don't come any higher than that from me. Think about it: Ry Cooder! Improvising slide guitar with an Indian master! On a 3-D Blumlein-miked triode-tubed analog recording!

GO KAVI GO!—Corey Greenberg