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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
BILL FRISELL, Barbican, London, November 15th 2005
Hey Serge. Do you remember when you were a little boy with shorts and bruised knees sitting in your school classroom on a long sunny late summer afternoon? Did they make you learn and sing those weird songs that you didn’t quite understand ? Like all those fair Spanish ladies who you always had to say farewell to ? Or two two the lilywhite boys clothed all in green ho ho ? Or my land is your land is your land my land my land is your land ? No ? Well I did. And of all the songs that have stuck in my mind one, ‘Oh Shenandoah’, always comes back to me. It’s just what a schoolboy wanted - wide open spaces, the Wild West, cowboys and, err… Native American Indians, romance, and the adventure of the endless rolling river all wrapped up in one. Cinemascope pictures merging in the autumn-burnished leaves blowing through a deserted school playground.
Enough purple prose - back to Shenandoah. It’s a river apparently, but as for the song – well that’s a mystery left to the speculations of numerous internet chat rooms (have a look, it’s fascinating). But I still love it because my meaning of the song is etched firmly in my memory, so when I first listened to Bill Frisell’s hypnotic and haunting instrumental version (aided by the odd bit of Ry Cooder) from his 1999 album Good Dog, Happy Man I was taken back to all those adventures of my desk-bound childhood. And I have to admit, I was somewhat taken with Mr Frisell, albeit somewhat belatedly, as he’s been recording and touring since 1978. However, better late then never.
Six years and several albums later Bill has a Grammy and numerous award nominations under his belt, and is heading for that dangerous ‘national treasure’ territory – ‘a revered figure amongst musicians’ the programme tells us.
Bill Frisell
He’s playing as part of the rather stuffy London Jazz Festival at the acoustically brilliant (good) but soulless (bad) Barbican, accompanied by Greg Leisz on guitar and lap steel guitar, and Jenny Scheinman on violin. Oh yes, and the gig is being recorded by festival co-sponsors BBC Radio 3, and broadcast on Tuesday 22nd November on ‘Late Junction’. So radio surfers - you know where to head for.
I should note that on a personality level Bill is about as engaging as he was when I last saw him five years ago. Could he, I wonder, have done a deal with the devil ? “Beeal” said the Devil (dam, why does the Devil always talk in that corny accent ?), “Beeal, give me your charisma and I will make you the greatest guitarist in the world.” No, I can’t see it somehow... just too exciting for Bill. But it doesn’t matter, apart from the pink baseball boots and the red hooped socks (ouch !) this is a man that lets his guitar do the talking.
I could think of no better way of spending an evening than watching, and listening to, Bill Frisell play the guitar. I wouldn’t even want a dram, his playing (all loops, delays and reverses) is as alluring as the viscimetric whorls of the most powerful of whiskies. And I wouldn’t care if he was playing the wallpaper – and I have to say I’ve heard some refusniks say dismissively he does just that. It’s partly a guitar thing. Watching him pluck harmonics out of the air at will; the way he really works his guitar, almost like an extension of his body. Like the skipper of a yacht he’s always fidgeting with something, an amplifier switch here, a pedal there (woops, there go the red hooped socks again), his guitar volume control, always beavering away to get the very best performance possible from his instrument. And here’s another quote from the programme, “his signature is built from pure sound and inflection; an anti-technique that is instantly identifiable”. Anti-technique ? Phew ! And he’s playing – guitar heaven – it’s a Fender Telecaster, the virtuoso’s instrument of choice.
That’s the good bit. It was, as the man in the Gents (he’d driven down from Birmingham) said, “Fookin’ ace”. But the choice of material was a bit surprising. The evening was made up entirely of a selection of songs written by John Lennon (although of course attributed to Lennon and McCartney, or as his Sir Paulship tried to insist recently, McCartney and Lennon). Trying to figure out exactly which song he was playing was quite a challenge, as the give away melody normally didn’t emerge until about two thirds of the way through the number. I did manage to pick ‘Across the universe’, ‘You’ve got to hide your love away’, ‘Revolution’, ‘There are places’, ‘Julia’, ‘Please please me’, ‘Come together’ and ‘Nowhere man’. Bill Frisell
But there were a couple (quite good ones) that I missed. And to be honest, rather than saying “it didn’t work” it’s probably true to say that the Frisell treatment showed up in cruel light the strengths and weaknesses of some of these songs. ‘Julia’ sounded like schmaltz. ‘Nowhere man’ was (I thought) quite brilliant, as was ‘Universe’. I think it was something about Frisell’s complex arrangements exposing the frailty and predictability of some of Lennon’s melodic structures. But hey, I’m no critic, and that sounds dangerously like critic bollocks, doesn’t it?
It was strange that when I got home I listened to the radio whilst I tried to make sense of my notes, Frisell’s gorgeous guitar still echoing through my head. There on the late news was Mark Chapman, whose notoriety I need not mention, talking about the ‘incredible feeling’ he had when he shot John Lennon. Rather tasteless really, and what they call, so I understand, “a bit of a downer”. - Nick Morgan (concert photo by Kate)

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