Tuesday night found me in the same place as Monday night: in line outside Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, with some friends, hoping to get into the front row of a concert with a particularly unbelievable lineup. Guitar geeks around the world had been drooling over this one, an improvisational trio of world-famous guitarists, along with Shahzad Ismaily on drums (presumably he was brought in to keep the guitar players from getting out of hand ;)). All three of the guitarists – Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, and Marc Ribot – are superstar performers in their own right, and this was, as far as I know, the first time they’ve ever appeared on stage together. Unsurprisingly, I recognized a number of guitarists (and some other musicians) in the audience. It was just that kind of show.
In the weeks coming up to the show, I was seeing a lot of comments from people along the lines of “Those three guitarists are awesome! And I’m sure whoever that other guy is will be good too.” And that’s a shame, because Shahzad Ismaily is awesome. I started paying attention to him a few years back when someone had asked me for a top five albums of the year list, and I realized that he was a major player on three of my top five – and they were all completely different genres of music. I really wish he had a website where I could see when he is playing concerts and stuff (hint hint!).
I feel like I don’t really have to introduce the guitarists, but sometimes my mom reads my blog (Hi Mom!) and she probably doesn’t know who Nels Cline is, so I’ll give a brief overview of them. Marc Ribot – my favorite – plays a very wide variety of genres, has something like twenty albums released under his own name and has contributed to countless other people’s albums, including Tom Waits, John Zorn, Joe Henry, Elvis Costello, John Lurie, Jolie Holland, and even Elton John. Nels Cline is currently best-known for his membership in Wilco, one of the biggest indie bands around, and he also leads his own projects, including the Nels Cline Singers and the Nels Cline Trio. Bill Frisell is – geez, the bio on his website is about 7000 words long, it’s hard to summarize this guy! Like Ribot, he’s played in extremely diverse genres, he’s got a huge roster of collaborators and a long list of his own bands and releases.
(Photo by Petra Cvelbar – check out more of her photos at her photo blog!)
They played two sets, and did a variety of duos and trios – each set had an all-guitar trio, and at various points in the evening all of the guitarists did duets (Ribot/Frisell, Cline/Frisell, Cline/Ribot). I think Shahzad Ismaily only joined in for pieces with the full quartet, but I may be misremembering something (I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night, which is never good for remembering gig details later!). The entire night with the exception of one song (as far as I could tell) was improv. The non-improv piece was a song with Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell, introduced by Marc Ribot muttering something about how “Frisell is making me sing.” I have a video of this piece that I’ll post on Youtube later, keep an eye on my channel if that interests you! The improv pieces were all over the map and hard to describe – it was generally noisy and weird, but there were parts that rocked and parts that were kind of funky and parts that sounded more like jazz. They used a lot of extended techniques and a variety of guitars. Shahzad Ismaily felt underused, to me, and I often found it to be a welcome relief when he was on stage, because his drumming would give some much-needed rhythm and structure to the pieces. Some of the pieces without him got a little too free for my tastes (I’m sure many would disagree, though!).
My friend posted videos of the entire second set on Youtube, and I took some of my own in the first set. This is my video of the Cline/Frisell/Ribot guitar trio improv piece, sans Shahzad Ismaily:
My favorite moment of the whole night was in the first piece of the second set. The guitar trio (as seen in the video above, but a different piece) started off the set, the perfect balance of refreshed from the break and warmed up after the first set, and they were great. Just killing it. But I think they kept going too long – the piece stretched to ten, fifteen, twenty minutes with no signs of stopping. Things started wandering a bit. I’m pretty sure I saw one of the musicians check their watch at one point! Finally Shahzad Ismaily decided to save the day, he walked on stage while they were still playing and just sat down and started hitting that kick drum. BANG! BANG! BANG! A few of those got everyone’s attention, and then he started slamming out a slow, powerful beat (at which point some audience members cheered). That was all they needed to change from a wandering free noise jam to a seriously awesome bit of improv funk. It was incredible to watch how such a simple thing (that slow beat) could completely change the character of what happened on stage. I think you could make some kind of meteorological metaphor here about how the guitarists needed some kind of seed to condense their music on, and the drum beat supplied that seed.
Since my friend John was so kind as to upload this part of the show, you can see for yourself at this link – I’ve queued it up about 25 minutes into the piece so you can see the part I was describing. If you want to watch the whole second set, there’s a playlist here.
Normally at the end of a blog I might make a recommendation of some albums to check out or maybe suggest you go see whichever band I’m talking about, but in this case they’ve never recorded anything together and it’s fairly likely that they will never perform together again with this exact lineup, so I guess you will just have to settle for being jealous. Sorry!