- Magellan of the underground: Sir Richard Bishop
Sir Richard Bishop wasn't really knighted by Her Majesty, any more than Bonnie "Prince" Billy was ever a member of the British royal family. Yet both have attained hallowed status in the indie aristocracy, while remaining outsiders in pop culture -- traveling troubadours from the fringes of awareness. The main difference between the two folk heroes is that while Will Oldham's backyard is clearly somewhere in Appalachia, Bishop's can be almost anywhere from the fetid banks of the Ganges to the arid, windswept dunes of the Empty Quarter.
Bishop and his brother Alan grew up with Middle Eastern classical music. So when forming their vision of a punk band in the early '80s Arizona scene -- the same pot-and-peyote-damaged milieu that spawned Meat Puppets -- they came up with a sound that incorporated jazz, surf, poetry, free-improv and ethnic-music influences from around the globe. As the Sun City Girls (named after a retirement home), they released their first three albums on the now-defunct Placebo, the diverse label responsible for both skate-punkers Jodie Foster's Army and the Dry Lungs series of industrial/experimental compilations.
While never impacting the mainstream, the Sun City Girls slowly and steadily garnered a huge cult following as the Magic Band-meets-Arkestra of the indie era. Over the next three decades, they amassed an immense catalog of vinyl, CDs and cassettes -- many released on their own Cloaven and Abduction labels -- far surpassing the output of almost any other band during that time. And while you never knew exactly what sonic surprises were in store when you unwrapped an SCG disc, you were always prepared for esoteric references from the far reaches of the globe, and a liberal sense of whimsy. With album titles like Kaliflower and 330,003 Crossdressers From Beyond The Rig Veda, how could it be otherwise?
While SCG members plied their trade as Magellans of the underground -- from playing on a cruise ship in Indonesia, to Alan Bishop's pursuit of "exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers" on his Sublime Frequencies label -- tragedy struck the group when drummer Charles Gocher died this past February, after a protracted fight with cancer.
Though archival material continues to be unveiled, the Bishop brothers vowed to no longer perform or record as Sun City Girls, opening up a vista for Sir Richard to expand the solo touring he began in 2005. Since the singular 1998 release Salvador Kali, on John Fahey's storied Revenant imprint, he's become as prolific as his former band, hitting the road as an acoustic guitarist on three continents with Will Oldham, Ben Chasny and Devendra Banhart, while issuing four albums in the past two years, including While My Guitar Violently Bleeds on Locust and the new Polytheistic Fragments on Drag City.
Perhaps equaled in intensity these days only by Loren Connors, on Polytheistic Fragments, Bishop distinguishes himself from the Venusian bluesman by being of this Earth, albeit its farthest reaches. Ideas on Fragments flow like ouzo, ranging from the gypsy-like Django strains of "Elysium Number Five" and the oud-esque mystery of "Rub Al Khali" to front-porch folksiness on "Tennessee Porch Swing."
And he uses other instruments besides guitar. "Ecstasies in the Open Air" has the billowy approach of '70s British prog-folk, complete with what might be (gasp!) a flute. The tambura drone and reverbed, new-agey piano on "Saraswati" smacks of Sheila Chandra, while the occultic hand drumming on "Cemetery Games" almost gives away his profession as a rare-book dealer, perhaps quoting here and there from dusty tomes on Sufism or Crowley.
Despite his diverse sources of inspiration, from ragtime to ragas, Bishop wants to make you aware of two things, especially if you're rushing over to his Warhol performance from a Calliope folk-music workshop. First, he's not a fingerpicker in the Fahey tradition -- he's quite proud of his big, fat pick. And second, according to an interview from the Southern Records Web site, he's not a songwriter either.
"For the most part, I just pick up the guitar and play," he adds. "I'll improvise endlessly. Eventually, portions of these improvisations might lead to an idea that can be developed into a composition that has some structure, but it's more like an outline, with many open areas for experimentation. I can perform it live and it will be different every time. That way, I never get tired of playing it. It's how I've always done it."
Sir Richard Bishop opens for Bill Callahan (a.k.a. Smog). 8 p.m. Wed., Sep. 5. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. $15. 412-273-8300 or www.warhol.org