Live Performance Review
Bill Frisell - Denver High School East - January 2015
Guitar in the Space Age Tour
By Jason Fink
Apparently, Bill Frisell played his first public guitar performance at this school (if not this very auditorium) back in 1967. The song was Wes Montgomery’s ‘Bumpin on Sunset’, and that event seemed to propel him into the world of Jazz Guitar.
He has now returned to Denver High East for a benefit of some sort, though I was not entirely sure what organization. This is a notable tidbit of information, because instead of an audience of fan-boy guitar players I expected, the 700 seat room was full of a different sort. While I am sure the guitar geeks were there in droves, Chuck and I were seated in the middle of a bunch of older folks (older than us anyway) gabbing and blabbing away. We arrived early, snag seats way up front, close to center, and settled in for the show while listening to the “old folks” secure seats, re-arrange themselves, secure more seats and save seats, and leave to find other seats. Well dressed, clean, and tidy; they were there to socialize - see and be seen supporting a cause. I prick up my ears as I hear conversations wondering who ‘this guy’ is, even from the folks who talk of just meeting him backstage and then complaints about the members who didn’t bother to show up because of the weather. Weather? We just drove 8 hours in a harrowing storm to immerse ourselves in the shimmering goodness of the Frisell Telecaster, and these old crows can’t bother to make it across town? Well, what do I expect? These guys don’t even know who their homeboy is! And the ones that did show, well, they well don’t know what they are in for.
Promptly at the 7:30 start time, Bill is introduced and stands at the mic to say a few words about his return to this stage. In a timid endearing fashion, he has few words, struggles, pauses, and decides playing is the only way out of this public speaking moment.
He opens with the immediately recognizable Kinks classic, Tired of Waiting, and when the band kicks in, well, it was clear that this entire venture was worth the effort.
It is easy to focus on Bill for this review… his rich, swirling, and oh-so-recognizable tone has captured my brain ever since Dave Gutierrez and I took a break from the Steel Pole Bathtub show at the Golden West. Must have been 1992-3 though my memory is a little fuzzy. We stepped out to to my car to clear the pounding in our heads (Ethyl Meatplow opened the show with waves of sheer industrial bombast and a tiny transvestite named Steak who danced on the PA mains with his boobs exposed and flailing about). I tuned on the radio to the university station just in time to hear the opening notes of Dylan’s, Just like a Woman, an instrumental version. Who the hell is playing that song in such a beautiful melodic manner? Luckily my question was answered by the DJ after the song, and you know how Freeform DJ’s are - it could be 45 mins before they tell you who you have been listening to! Thats all it took and I was in, hook, line, and sinker.
Have a listen, and imagine these notes sweeping away an entire Ethyl Meatplow set: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YF_1VXKXYCs
But, it’s not just about Bill. There is a band at play here, and they are certainly nothing to be trifled with. Bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wolleson, Greg Leisz. Greg Leisz is a monster guitar player and Pedal Steel cat who seems to pop up on every 4th or 5th album I fall for. Greg is there with Dave Alvin, all over the KD Lang discography, Loudon Wainwright III, Lucinda Williams, Allison Krauss, Whiskytown. Look it up, he’s probably on a shitload of music in your collection, too.
Leisz is definitely an integral piece of the ‘Guitar in the Space Age’ puzzle - the interplay between the two guitars is an intertwined gorgeous maze - at times I became confused on which notes where coming from which guitar. Chuck remarked that it was like Chamber music - or as Goethe said, referring to that style, “Four rational people conversing”. But, it was better than rational conversation - it was sublime, it was lofty, it was greatness.
The music was loosely woven, it was seamless, but with connected space. These guys know about space, how to fill it and how to leave it be. It’s those empty spaces that allow notes to blossom and bloom. And blossom 'n bloom it does.
My favorite moment of the night came with the opening octave chords of ‘Bumping on Sunset’, the one that started it all. The entire room was still, and in that space came that classic Wes sound, the 2-note octaves. but it was through the his own tonal filter and it was perfection! In all my extensive Frisell collection, I do not have a version of this song, and perhaps he has yet to record it.
But you can have a taste:
The theme behind Guitar in the Space Age seems to be nostalgia. Bill returning to his pre-jazz roots and songs that inspired his drive to play a guitar. I know a bunch of these tunes, but none of this music is what inspired me to play guitar. Pipeline, Walk Don’t Run, Baja are quaint little twang ditties compared to Helter Skelter, Dark Side of the Moon and Smoke on Water. When I first looked at the song list, I was firmly in the “meh” camp. I don’t want to hear Bill play a bunch of cheezy old surf tunes. I didn’t want to hear covers (despite the song that drew me in to begin with). It wasn’t until Alexander Thomas McMahon played me some of the album on the way to a Corrales Bistro Brewery gig that I softened my stance. It wasn’t hard to soften that stance. This is not some simple, sappy, trip down nostalgia road. These are interpretations with homage to the twang, but much more for me to grab onto and get lost in.
Get lost I did, but I found the end came far too soon. This isn’t a full 2 set guitar exploration, and I don’t suppose I should have expected it to be. This was a benefit - the sky is dark, roads icy, and benefactors got to get home and tucked into bed. But I will only complain a little bit, despite wanting much more, what we got was beautiful.
Tired of Waiting for You
Walk Don't Run
Turn! Turn! Turn!
Bumpin' on Sunset
Shenandoah - Good Dog, Happy Man
Messin' With the Kid
ENCORE Goin' Out of My Head/Pipeline