Simply put, Adrian Belew is one of the most perplexing musicians on Earth. He's one of recorded music's most innovative and versatile guitarists, bringing his unorthodox, effects-driven style to some of progressive rock's all-time classics as frontman for King Crimson. And as a studio musician and supporting player, he's added his unmistakable touch to a variety of beloved (and shockingly eclectic) projects.
That's his faulty modem guitar explosion that radiates during the climax of Talking Heads' classic "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)." That's his co-writing credit on the funky Tom Tom Club anthem "Genius of Love" (later sampled by Mariah Carey). Belew added a layer of worldly weirdness to Paul Simon's iconic Graceland. He studied under Frank Zappa, produced a crossover Christian hit single (Jars of Clay's "Flood"), collaborated with Trent Reznor and Laurie Anderson, and very nearly replaced David Byrne as Talking Heads frontman during a time of band unrest.
It's a strange place—worshipped by prog rockers, revered by critics, and virtually unknown to the public at large. His early solo albums, starting with 1982's Lone Rhino, were probably the exact opposite of what most fans expected, or wanted. His work in King Crimson—that sweet, billowing tenor; his way with a soothing (if slightly strange) ballad—proved he was more than just a restless experimenter, but his solo albums have been more melodic and song-focused, showing off his inner Beatles fetish and downplaying his more extreme eccentricities.
His more recent solo work still follows a more linear path, but none of his projects are lacking in ambition. He founded the Adrian Belew Power Trio after a rousing jam session with two students (brother and sister bass/drums duo Julie and Eric Slick) at Peter Green's revered School of Rock. As a trio, they absolutely command the stage, Belew often grinning ear-to-ear while his much younger cohorts dazzle with youthful glee as they try to keep up with the maestro.
Belew, in his home studio in the Nashville suburb Mt. Juliet, is currently juggling a variety of projects, one of which is a new solo studio album, his first since 2006's Side Three. As usual, Belew is playing every instrument, writing every note, and isolating himself in the luxury of his own sonic laboratory, where he's never more than a staircase away from a stunning amount of instruments (drum kits, effects pedals, synthesizers) and where an off-kilter pop song or lavish guitar epic is always brewing. But it's a busy time of year for plenty of other reasons.
"I just returned from doing a band camp with [King Crimson bandmates] Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto for a week in upstate New York at the Full Moon Resort, and that went really, really well," he says. "Now I'm preparing to go next to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois to the be keynote speaker at the Ellnora Guitar Festival there. I'm also going to have a showing in the art cinema of my latest DVD of me playing with the orchestra, which is called E for Orchestra, so I suppose, yeah, I am a pretty busy man!"
Besides the new music and the speech and the promotion of his new DVD, Belew somehow found time to coordinate the Two of a Perfect Trio tour, which melds the talents of the hard-hitting Adrian Belew Power Trio with Stick Men (featuring two Crimson members, bassist Levin and drummer Mastelotto). The Power Trio plays a set, followed by a Stick Men set, and eventually the two join for a double-trio encore designed to give the hardcore fans what they want most.
"It's the next best thing to seeing King Crimson!" Belew says.
And he's pretty much right on the money. During the '90s, under the guidance of guitarist/leader Robert Fripp, Crimson expanded to a double-trio line-up—but due to scheduling and artistic conflicts, the music was never performed live in that format. This new "Crim-Centric" formation has now played one show, "and the audience went absolutely crazy on that first attempt," Belew says.
Though King Crimson have played shows as recently as 2008, the band is currently in a transitional phase.
"I'm waiting for Robert to decide what he wants to do, as is the whole band," he says. "We follow his vision of what to do next. He won't be doing anything musical for the next two years. He's involved in litigation for old money owed to the band, and he said, ‘I'm not going to be doing anything, but I'll let you know.'"
No sweat for Belew—in fact, he's more than happy to carry on playing the material in any format. Some musicians would get annoyed by all the fan requests to play his more famous band's music. Belew, on the other hand, is equally in awe of the music King Crimson has created, and he's willing to twist what could be viewed as coincidence into fate.
"It's the 30th anniversary of me and Tony joining the band," he says. "After we played it the first time, we kind of thought, ‘This is kind of a greatest-hits record—the greatest hits that never were!'"