Adrian Belew Power Trio @ Isis Music Hall 5-4-17

L-R: Julie Slick [B], Adrian Belew [G], and Tobias Ralph [D]

I have always had time for Adrian Belew. He has both killer pop instincts and a desire to really stretch out and play in the margins. Since his colorful burst into my musical world with “Lodger” in 1979, he quickly became an important part of so much music in the Record Cell from ’80-’81 that is immediately marked him as a Post-Punk MVP for me. I first saw him in concert in 1996 when King Crimson were touring behind “Thrak.” My wife and I adored his show with The Bears when we moved to our new home in North Carolina in 2001. I subsequently saw him twice more with King Crimson and it went without saying that his solo show in [I think] 2006 at The Orange Peel was a given to attend, as it also happened near my birthday that year. What we could not have anticipated was how annoying that show had been. I can only surmise that Belew was having a mid-life crisis since his formerly nimble and playful music was reduced to leaden, lowest common denominator clichés and posturing. Why didn’t he just buy a Mazda Miata? At a certain point my wife and I looked at each other, agreed, then walked out of the venue, shaking our heads. The first [but not last] time we would do that.

So that was it for Belew. I’ve not heard a not he’d recorded past his last King Crimson work and I’ve passed up each of his [fairly regular] appearances in our city. Until last night. When I found out that The Adrian Belew Power Trio were coming to the Isis Music Hall, something inside me said “give Belew another chance.” Maybe it was the same spirit of reconciliation that prompted my recent volte-face on Midge Ure [much to my enjoyment and delight] but I thought that this might be the time to hear him play again. Besides, I have not heard Crimson live since 2003! I could use a little of that right now. So I bought my ticket [only $25 with just a 9% $2.25 ticket fee …thanks Ticket Biscuit] and showed up at the venue last night a little after 9 p.m.

Saul Zonana was a great fit with the Adrian Belew Power Trio

The opening act was Saul Zonana, another guitarist with effects board who was opening for the tour. His showtime was reported as being 8:30 and I had assumed that I would catch his whole set, but it didn’t work out that way. I had intended to get there earlier, but quite frankly, I felt completely deflated by yesterday’s heinous healthcare bill that the Republican congress rammed through the House. I was so glum, that simply making dinner took forever. I had never been to the venue in question hosting the show.

Well, almost not. I had seen Webb Wilder solo in the upstairs lounge of the Isis Music Hall a couple of years ago, but that was an intimate gig of 50 in a cozy room the size of my house. This would be in the main show room. My assistant at work talked up the sound there, so I was hopeful. The room was a delightful venue, actually! Upstairs was seated with good sight lines and the floor was large and friendly with a great stage/lighting. The venue was well attended but shy of SRO; in other words, perfect. 70-80% capacity from the looks of it. I could not help but notice many males wearing Belew related T-shirts with a certain preponderance of Crimson ProjeKCt designs. I myself had thought the better of wearing my Crimson “Vroom” shirt [though I sure love its vibrant color] and opted for the hopefully more astute Bowie “Heroes” design. Fortunately for humanity, the audience was about 20% female! Some not in the company of men. Things were looking good!

Zonana was a somewhat more conventional rocker than Belew with a handle in good pop/rock songs. As such, he reflected the pop values that Belew had for a good tune, so he was a great opener for the gig. His one-man-band approach meant that he trafficked in effects much like Belew, though his tone was wildly different, but certainly complementary to the rest of the evening. When Zonana left the stage at 9:30 I could not help but notice that 9:30 was the stated start time for the Trio. I imagined that we’d be seeing them, hopefully, by 10 p.m. Imagine my delight when at 9:35 a gregarious Belew and band ambled out from behind the stage curtain and began to set up and play.

Bassist Julie Slick was at stage right, resplendent in curly blue hair and a colorful kimono. Belew was wearing duds he joked were maybe better suited for working in a garage; simple black coveralls. I was happy to see that though long since bald and thin on top, he refused to shave his head. Or grow it long in the back to compensate. Meanwhile, drummer Tobias Ralph mounted his kit stage left in basic black. Belew kicked off with a goofy instrumental ditty [probably from the 40s] on his sampler and then we were off to the races.

I knew that the Trio were performing lots of King Crimson material and having not heard any live Crimson in 14 years, I was more than ready for this. What I really wanted to hear this evening was Belew tackling “Boys Keep Swinging,” the “Lodger” single that was a high water mark of his guitar contribution tot he album. His long solo[s] on the second half of the single were legendary, and what finer way to tip the hat to Mr. Bowie? Yesterday afternoon, I had been listening to Belew’s “Young Lions” album on the way home yesterday, so I was very happy to hear the great numbers from that one straight up. “Men In Helicopters,” an even more relevant eco-rocker, the title track, and the excellent Bowie duet from that album, “Pretty Pink Rose.” Then the set zipped backward in time almost a decade for the iconic “Big Electric Cat;” sounding appropriately sleek here in contrast to the version that actually drove me from the room over a decade ago. By golly, these young kids [read: in their 30s] could really play.

Boy could they ever. This concert set a new bar at drumming for me when Belew sat down and gave the stage to Ralph for a “drum lesson” as Belew called it. Adrian warned us that Tobias Ralph was also known as “the hummingbird,” after which Ralph proceeded to take 4-5 minutes showing us why. Good gravy, I have never seen or heard drumming this… I don’t know exactly how to describe it, before! Suffice to say, he’s earned his moniker honestly, as his sticks fluttered over his kit like a stormcloud touching down intermittently. Providing polybeats and trills that put drum + bass machine programming very much in the shade. Do anything you can to see this man play a kit!

In between angular instrumentals I presume were from unheard Belew albums, there was a healthy amount of Crimson material. Well balanced between ballads like “One Time” or “Heartbeat” and more intense material like “Dinosaur” or my all time favorite “Frame By Frame.” The latter is probably my all time favorite KC number; primarily for Fripp’s characteristically inhuman ostinatos, which make me hold my breath each time I hear them. Obviously, those would not be happening tonight but I can’t say I really noticed as the compression of this song from four to three players [and none of them Fripp] seemed not to dim its allure one iota. Well played, guys. Well played. After that, the band took 15 before the second set.

The second set commenced when Belew walked out sporting a red baseball cap. Julie Slick had doffed her kimono and now was just in a sleeveless top. They dig into a setlist heavy on the King Crimson. “Three Of A Perfect Pair” was a great number to sing along with. “Neurotica” was a pleasant surprise from the under-appreciated [even by me, back in the day] “Beat” album of 1982. The song had been radically restructured here to accommodate the smaller combo but it didn’t lack for brain-melting intensity any! I found it interesting that Belew opted for sampled playback of his stream-of-consciousness rap from the number, though he sometimes recited along with his playback. After that peak frenzy, the delicate “Walking On Air” from “Thrak” was a necessary coda.

Then he did it! He pulled “Boys Keep Swinging” out of his bag of tricks, much to my delight. What a treat to hear his careening solo on that wonderful song live for the first time. The second set sped by with highlights being “Elephant Talk” and the set closer of “Thela Hun Ginjeet.” Man, that last number smoked!! This one has been rising in my estimation for a decade or more to the point where it’s almost on parity with “Frame By Frame,” and this was exactly the sort of jolt that I needed on this wet, dismal Thursday evening of smirking Republicans pillaging public healthcare [to the extent that we even have it in the backward United States of America] to shovel the tax dollars not collected back into the coffers of the excessively wealthy. The band finished, went backstage long enough for Ms. Slick to put on a red sequined baseball cap and it was back into some instros to gradually reduce the energy levels following “Thela Hun Ginjeet” back to safe levels.

Curtain call for The Adrian Belew Power trio

As the show came to an end by 11:45 p.m. I was cognizant that I felt much better, thank you, than I had earlier that day. My pall of glumness had been lifted by the fun-loving and playful antics of Belew and his youthful cohorts. Everyone was having a lot of fun last night, not the least of which was Belew himself, who repeatedly tried to fake out his band members with lurches into riffs that were only rarely followed through on. One particularly amusing gag was Belew making buzzing insect noises while Ms. Slick pantomimed jumping up and slapping her hands together. It’s safe to say that the face-pulling, rawk phase that bumped me off the Belew train was long gone. While this show was lighter on the pop that I was expecting, and of course it attained moments of face-melting intensity, the overall vibe was playful fun of the sort that belied the level of intense musicianship that all three brought to their roles on stage. Last night’s show was the first date on the second leg of their 2017 tour with dates below if you feel like some intense fun to bring you out of your mental funk. It certainly worked for me!

Adrian Belew Power Trio | US Spring Tour 2017 [2nd Leg]

  • 05/04/2017 | Asheville, NC | Isis Music Hall
  • 05/05/2017 | Carrboro, NC | Cat’s Cradle
  • 05/06/2017 | Ardmore, PA | Ardmore Music Hall
  • 05/07/2017 | Annapolis, MD | Rams Head on Stage
  • 05/09/2017 | New York, NY | Iridium
  • 05/10/2017 | New York, NY | Iridium
  • 05/11/2017 | New York, NY | Iridium
  • 05/12/2017 | Albany, NY | Sawyer
  • 05/13/2017 | Montreal, QC | Le Club Soda
  • 05/14/2017 | Quebec City, QC | Salle Jean Paul Tardif
  • 05/16/2017 | Toronto, ON | The Mod Club
  • 05/17/2017 | Ferndale, MI | The Magic Bag
  • 05/18/2017 | Cincinnati, OH | 20th Century Theater
  • 05/19/2017 | Indianapolis, IN | Radio Radio
  • 05/20/2017 | Nashville, TN | 12th & Porter
  • 05/21/2017 | Atlanta, GA | Terminal West

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About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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5 Responses to Adrian Belew Power Trio @ Isis Music Hall 5-4-17

  1. SimonH says:

    Sounds like a great gig, I need to buy more Crimson and Belew.
    Don’t worry it’s an equally bleak political horror story over here in the UK as well…a time when a retreat into music is needed more than ever.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      SimonH – Dunno if “retreat” into music is healthy, but an occasional dip into the pool is reenergizing. And increasingly necessary in this sick, sad world. I’m just annoyed at missing the last three big marches, but I had pressing household duties.


  2. SimonH says:

    Yes, I know, thought that as I typed the word, however here we’re facing what could be 10 to 15 years of right wing government, probably should be playing The Jam, Going Underground on repeat:)


    • postpunkmonk says:

      SimonH – You’re being generous. I consider that I’ve experienced two generations of right wing government. That’s all I’ve ever known as an adult. There have been Democratic administrations but they were only socially Democratic. Fiscally? They were all Republican. The repeal of the Glass/Steagall Act happened under Clinton’s administration and that was what allowed the fiscally toxic environment of 2008 to quickly fester, just like responsible economists said that it would.


  3. SimonH says:

    Point taken!
    I’m suffering post local election, pre general election blues.
    And let’s not even get on to Brexit.


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