The annals of guitar awesomeness have volumes devoted to Adrian Belew. In 1970, Frank Zappa heard Belew playing with a Nashville cover band and had his chauffeur invite him to audition. (See Sheik Yerbouti and Baby Snakes.) While playing with Zappa, Belew caught the attention of one David Bowie, who hired him upon completion of the Zappa tour. (See Stage and Lodger.) Bowie introduced Belew to Brian Eno, who was in deep with a band called Talking Heads at that time. (See Remain in Light and The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads.) Add to all that a grip-full of multi-faceted records under his own name, or bands that he has led or co-led like the Bears and King Crimson, and you have a fair representation of what the guitar—and the guitarist—is capable of.
Simply put, Belew can make the damn thing do any damn thing he wishes—from art-rock to shredding to electronic to classical to orchestral. He’s comfortable with that, and shoulders the guitar god mantle lightly.
“I think all of it adds up,” Belew says from his home-studio compound, just over the hill in Mt. Juliet, Tenn. He’s contemplating the reconciliation of twin careers as badass hired gun and independent innovator. “It’s like one big experience, one piece of work that all runs together. The things I might play on someone’s record sometimes lead to the things I decide to do on my own, and vice versa. Mostly, I’m just driven to create things. I’ve always been that way. I can’t stop wanting to find new things. It’s the new things that really keep me feeling young and happy and wanting to do more. I’m not in a situation, like some people are, where they have to go out and play pretty much the same songs every year. Especially with the Power Trio, I’ve written into the arrangements things that are allowed to change every night and places where we improvise. So every show is really fresh to us.”
The power trio to which Belew refers will be here this week, and is comprised of himself and the Slick siblings, 22-year-old drummer Eric and 23-year-old bassist Julie. Belew says that if you add their ages, it still doesn’t come close to his own. But the collective combination of experience, expertise, and prodigious musical intuition and skill contained in this group may lead you to adjust long-held philosophical paradigms. Belew retains the wit and deft, speedy touch of his own youth, and the Slicks are just right there, locked in and pushing him forward. There’s no sense of idolatry or intimidation from the youngsters; they know they can play the stuff, they’re in, and they’re simply taking cues and expressing themselves in complementary parallels. The non-coincidental coincidences that built this trio are similar to those that drew Belew into the Zappa band.
“For about four or five years, whenever I had a little bit of time in between touring with King Crimson or making records or whatever, I was writing music that I thought was suitable and kind of created for what I call a power trio,” Belew says. “That’s an old term, but what it means is three people playing together who really have to excel at what they do and give 100 percent of their playing ability. So you have to have pretty good players. Early power trios were things like Cream or Jimi Hendrix or whatever. I’m not saying we’re that or compared to that, it’s just that each person really has to take up a lot of room.
“So I’d written a bunch of material that way, and was looking for the proper trio to play it right. I went through two different trios that didn’t work. And just as I was about to give up on the idea, I stumbled across Eric and Julie. I went to the School of Rock, in Philadelphia, the original one. The founder, Paul Green, had me there for a seminar with the current students. He said. ‘I’ve got these two extraordinary students who have graduated already. Could I bring them in and have you play something with them?’ We played a Frank Zappa song. Then it was Martha and Paul Green saying, ‘Wow. This might be the trio that you’ve been looking for.’ It works better than I would have ever imagined. First of all, I never would have thought of going after young kids—when I found them they were 19 years old. They just happen to be beyond their years in their musical maturity.”
The value of Belew and what he does is more than musical. Since before he was younger than the Slick kids, he’s never stopped working and he’s never done the same thing twice. He has always preferred challenge over comfort and favored the unknown over the familiar. The result is consistently fresh art that impresses on many levels. If he gets fewer magazine covers than his music warrants, it’s because he smiles while he plays instead of grimacing and arching his back. His playing is amazing. It’s also a reminder that all great art is the result of real-time rapid problem-solving.
“We’re at a great place right now,” says Belew, “it’s so exciting every night. Don’t miss this show. If your son is a 10-year-old guitar player and he’d like to be able to say that he saw something really interesting when he was 10, it would be a great time. I’m very proud of what we do.”