Wednesday, 17 May 2017

review: Adrian Belew at the Mod Club, Toronto

Adrian Belew my mind last night.

He's an intellect yet accessible.

Studied yet endlessly creative.

Calculated yet organic.

This incarnation of his trio has played together for six years.  They are flawlessly tight, yet it feels fresh.  The balance of arrangement and improvisation is excellent, neither of which ever outstay their welcome.

Belew was quirky.  There were plenty of funny bits, both musical and visual - anything from pretending his guitar was broken to playing out of sync shots with the drummer to hilarious effect.  Never before have I seen an artist whose sense of humour was equally integral to the performance as the music.  This is what I've heard seeing Max Webster circa 1975-79 was like.

I admittedly didn't know much of the material.  He is best known as being a member of King Crimson and for his stints with Frank Zappa and David Bowie (who essentially stole him from Zappa, which Belew wrote about in two parts shortly after Bowie died).  Nearly half the setlist was from his King Crimson years, and the rest was from his extensive solo catalog, save for one track from Lodger (the one Bowie album he played on).  Even if a solid portion of the show was 30+ year old music, this is the furthest thing from a nostalgia act.

Bassist Julie Slick's chops and presentation were equally strong, maneuvering the challenging parts with ease, and she even added swimming goggles to her dazzling ensemble at one point.  Completing the trio is the masterfully artistic Tobias Ralph on drums.  The rhythm section was technical yet fluid, and not the least bit sterile.  The three of them interacted like a family.  They genuinely enjoy playing together.

In sharp contrast to his bassist, Belew looked like a gas station attendant, dressed in a black onesie with a red baseball cap.

And I've never seen a musician sweat like him.  He had a towel next to him, wiping himself off several times per song.  Even his fingers were dripping, but they were never slippery.  His playing was pristine.  He's 67, with the energy level of someone who's 27.  Watching him left me exhausted - the best kind of exhausted that a good show in a sweaty pit can leave you.

And to think performing with an experimental power trio is just one of the things he does.  He has a string of solo albums with Beatle-esque songs (yet completely in his own identity; 1992's Inner Revolution is my favourite), he's a serial multi-instrumentalist, and he's an innovator - his latest creation is an app with a musical algorithm that never plays back the same way twice.

His website hails him as "a creative force for the good of mankind."  It's impossible to disagree.  About 500 people were united through music in its purest form.

He smiled for about 90% of the night.  His precision as a guitarist cannot be overstated, and neither can his gentlemanly nature.  His demeanour was that of a man who just does not take himself seriously.  His craft, yes, but not himself as a person.  He is a man completely at peace with who he is, fully realizing that a bigger venue would mean a loss of intimacy.

The band played two sets.  During intermission I ran into my old pal and colleague Tristan Avakian, who declared that our guest of honour was the right lunatic for this asylum.

How right he was.

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