Fred Frith

Reviews by Ben McAllister and Dimbulb

At the Polestar Music Gallery, November 17, 2003

Ben McAllister

The man is a magician! I've been listening to his recordings for over 15 years but have never had the chance to see him live until this past Saturday. I've just begun to wrap my head around the personal implications of this show, so it's time to write.

The Polestar Music Gallery in Seattle is small – like a narrow hallway. Four seats on one side, three on the other, and maybe twenty rows in all. The line outside was equally comprised of ticket-holders and hopefully-soon- to-be-ticket-holders. Luckily, the front row allowed enough room for a few people to sit on the ground.

Fred came on after about half hour of patient waiting in this packed house, took off his shoes, and picked up his guitar. He opened what turned out to be nearly an hour of improvised music with harmonics on all string, ornamented by his super-precise tuning peg manipulation. After strumming all strings while stopping them at one nodal point, he'd move the tuners and move through different harmonies – beautiful step-wise chord progressions. He began on something close to standard tuning, and ended up with a few unison-tuned strings by the end of this section.

From this point on, the show was a meticulously crafted, albeit totally improvised, event – gracefully delineated sections of guitar incorporating all sorts of props: brushes, string, rubber bands, violin bow, chain, Altoid boxes full of paper clips. He often changed pickup configurations and he had some split-coil design going where he could isolate the upper and lower strings, and had a pickup above the 1st fret for Reichel-esque other- side-of-the-slide-isms.

I could go on about my favorite parts, but suffice it to say that Frith's work as a violinist is apparent in his guitar playing - more so, to me, after seeing him perform live. He used string (jute I think) to rub the strings at nodal points, moving quickly from one node to another, to another. At one magical point he rapped a rubber band around his low E, played it like a bass, and bowed the rubber band. This show was an ass-kicking education for me. I was too speechless to go talk to him afterward.

A bit more on the use of props: two Altoid boxes (little tin boxes approx 3"x5"x1"), and one had about 30 paper clips in it. No lids on either of them. You can create a few sounds with this combo and a guitar - I'll list them:

1) the open ringing strings of the guitar by themselves. 2) laying the box flush against the strings over the pickups. 3) laying an edge of the box against the strings, then laying the bottom flush. 4) once the box is flush, pour the paper clips from the free box into the box on the guitar -- the paper clips may splash out onto the pickups, making little (plink) noises. 5) picking the box with the clips up off the guitar, quietly. 6) picking the box with the clips up off the guitar, scraping the strings along the way.

As such, Fred would produce sounds like “ah-chunk-splash-chwa- kerchunk-plash-crrrrrraaaaaaaaa-chunk-splash” and so on. Kind of sounded like a much more creative and tasty opening for Pink Floyd's “Money.” The subtle things were really most effective: the twine being used to bow the strings at nodal points is still stuck in my head. So was the tuning peg manipulation.


I saw Fred here in Albuquerque nearly two years ago and it was definitely a jaw-dropping experience. His totally improvised approach and use of strange objects are still inspiring me. Dropping grains of rice, small tins placed on the strings (guitar held flat), whacked with little sticks or rotated in small increments, strips of felt brushed against strings, threaded through strings, suddenly pulled out from strings, lots of stomp boxes (MXR blue box, line6 DL 4, Digitech Space Station and others).

The small gathering of about fifty were enthralled for about an hour by the performance of his single piece. When it ended, I wanted another hour. It was at that concert that I met my current musical collaborator, Jim Coker, which was just about the perfect way to meet a musical comrade I think. There’s a video called Across the Border which is a great documentary on Frith, and I highly recommend searching it out. I don’t think many places get the honor of hosting a Frith show (I don’t expect to see him in Albuquerque again) so the video may be as close as you will get!