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Bill Frisell's "Guitar in the Space Age" at the Blue Note

Peter Jurew By

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Bill Frisell
Blue Note
New York, NY
October 4, 2016

It's one month before what is shaping up to be an epochal presidential election; the national mood is tense, nerves are fraying, anxiety is high. And just in the nick of time, here comes guitarist Bill Frisell to save our sanity! He's presenting the Blue Note (NYC) audiences with a week of coolly poignant interpretations of some of his favorite vintage pop tunes, most of which are taken from one of his recent albums, Guitar In The Space Age!—a week later he will return to the club to will play a different set of tunes from another recent release, When You Wish Upon A Star, interpretations of classic movie themes.

While the professorial-looking Frisell presents a calm demeanor, the tunes he explored on an early October evening with his exquisite band—Greg Leisz on pedal steel and electric guitars, Tony Scherr on bass and Kenny Wolleson on drums—were restless and sad. The set began with a smoldering rendition of the Hank Williams country classic, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," released on Frisell's Ghost Town album in 2000. "Cannonball Rag," a punchy Merle Travis tune, pushed the tempo up a notch or two before the band launched into a heavy, poignant version of the recent Nobel Prize-winner Bob Dylan's "Masters Of War"—angry and hurting, Wollesen pounded a slow, funereal beat on his tom-toms. The heartbreak continued with Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," sweet-sad cascading notes from Leisz's steel guitar. Another in a string of messages emerged in the form of the great Kinks tune, "Tired Of Waiting For You," where Scherr held down the smooth riff on electric bass, and Frisell enjoyed the ride with crisp guitar colors, including a trill or two of Jerry Garcia-esque guitar licks.

A funked-up "Messin' With The Kid" was next, Frisell putting the verses and choruses through the blender of his bright, steely playing. More pop gold followed in the form of Little Anthony and the Imperials' classic, "Out Of My Head," played in a studiously soulful way that destroyed the trap of expectations set by decades of lounge singers and reclaimed the great tune with fresh ideas out of the electric fingers of Frisell. A quiet solo guitar meditation introduced the next tune—it felt like an Irish lullaby—before the rhythm section kicked in and the music opened up into a sparkling arrangement of "Shenandoah," with Leisz's melting notes on his pedal steel behind staunch bright chords on Frisell's lead guitar. By song's end, all stops having been pulled out, the emotion in the club was palpable, the effect was heart-rending.

The set wound down with a somber, studious treatment of the Beatles' "In My Life," John Lennon's ode to lost time, with Scherr doing yeoman work on the electric bass. The tune segued into a final clarion call with a version of Lennon's "Give Peace A Chance," and then it was over, the patrons of this brilliant, moving set of music headed out into the New York night to ponder Frisell's musical messages: Guitar in the Space Age!, as presented live at the Blue Note, had turned out to be a searing, quietly inspirational ninety-minute protest against the crazy state of things and a wordless prayer for change.

Bill Frisell, electric guitar and effects; Greg Leisz, pedal steel and electric guitars. Tony Scherr, acoustic and electric bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums.

Photo Credit: Lou Montesano
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