The Adrian Belew Power Trio at The Ark
Ann Arbor, Michigan, July 20, 2009
Adrian Belew will turn 60 this year. Why should you care about an old guy with such a ridiculous name? Probably because he is one of the most technically capable and imaginative guitar players, far more adept at what he does than any number of people half his age. And able to keep up with people a third his age. Let’s put it another way: Adrian Belew is who the guy playing that self-indulgent solo at Guitar Center thinks he is.
Hit up Wikipedia for Belew’s bona fides: King Crimson, Talking Heads, Bowie, Zappa. For someone with his capability, it might be surprising that the Adrian Belew Power Trio performs at venues like The Ark, a hall that’s smaller by half than a high school gymnasium. But the reality of it is that those with a particular talent — and make no mistake, his is a particular talent — tend to find themselves reaching an audience the size of which has an inverse relationship to what they can do.
Speaking of high school gym, a word is in order about the other members of the Trio. Julie Slick (bass) and brother Eric (drums) are barely twenty-somethings, making the balding dude on stage between them seem even more the creepy uncle to their cherubic youth. One wonders whether Belew is employing them as interns. That they’re even willing to hang out with the likes of him is somewhat surprising because the talent level of the young duo seems unbounded.
Belew is obsessive about working what he can manage to get out from his Parker Signature guitar, to the extent that there are at least two possible reasons why he is playing with the Slicks: His contemporaries might be less willing to cut him so much slack as he is nudging it; his contemporaries might have a profoundly difficult time of keeping up with him. There is something to be said about working with these talented young musicians, musicians he met at the Paul Green School of Rock in 2006. There is something to be said about, well, education.
But before we allow this review to be hijacked by the Slicks — as they threatened to do throughout the show — let’s turn the focus back where it rightfully belongs, to the mad professor. His experiments with the guitar are legendary, and such dabblings in effects and processing to make his instrument sound like all manner of animals and mechanical beasts were on full display. Particularly interesting was a lengthy solo piece in which Belew chased the kids off the stage, then sat down to jam with himself, literally, on a cover of George Harrison‘s “Within You Without You.” Belew also debuted some material from his forthcoming album, e, which will be available on his Web site on July 25, or so we were told.
What’s interesting about Belew’s music is that in some ways it is like a fabric, a tapestry, one that he’s been weaving for several years, but in a way that it is all of a piece. That is, he opened the performance with “Big Electric Cat” from his debut solo album of 1982 and closed it, in the encore (of course) with King Crimson’s “Three of a Perfect Pair” from 1984’s eponymous album, yet even though there was the new material from e, someone would be hard pressed to delineate the musical differences between now and then, or even between then (’82) and nearly then (’84). You can’t see (or hear) the gaps or changes in the stitching. The experimentation never seems to have started, nor has it stopped.
Yet for all the weirdness, noise, and creativity that distinguishes Belew’s sound, perhaps the best aspect of his current touring arrangement is that it delivers a tight and polished rock performance, with much more than the meandering guitar wankery that has always been prog rock’s Achilles heel. This was much appreciated by the crowd, which broke into a veritable sing-along during the encore. Though let’s be straight — as much as “Three…” represents the high-water mark for King Crimson’s accessibility, this was a far cry from what presumably went down at the nearby DTE Energy Music Theater, where Asia and Yes were playing on the same night.
Even before the encore, the Power Trio had received a standing ovation, albeit one that was premature and seemed to genuinely surprise Belew, who noted that the show wasn’t over, as though it wasn’t something that often happened. And before the band finally exited the stage, he said that while they’ve traveled quite extensively, they’d not been to Ann Arbor (although years earlier, in his post-pre Crimson life [i.e., left the band, reunited with the band, all part of the fabric], he’d performed at a nearby ballroom with The Bears), he thought, given the reception, they’d “found a home there.” Which is undoubtedly true, not because of the generosity of the crowd, but because Adrian, Julie and Eric paid the rent in advance.