The Ultimate Six-String Summit: It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud indeed, when three generations of rock guitarists convene for the ultimate six-string summit. Jimmy Page (representative of 1970s stadium rock and, with Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, part of the canonical trinity of guitar heroes) joins The Edge (child of the punk/new wave era but also paradoxically a bit of an egghead) and Jack White (student of Americana and freewheeling blues-rock of The White Stripes and the Raconteurs). The three had no doubt crossed paths before now, but probably never had a chance to pick each other’s brains, let alone trade licks and jam.

Director Davis Guggenheim also made the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth and the soccer drama Gracie, but the core concept came from Thomas Tull, producer of Batman: The Dark Knight. As White quips in one of the DVD bonus features, he thought Page would make a fine Joker.

The Edge in It Might Get Loud
U2’s The Edge is a child of the punk/new wave era but is also paradoxically a bit of an egghead

Throughout, White is considerably more witty and spontaneous than the others, both verbally and in his effortless improvisation. In comparison, The Edge sometimes seems reticent and comparably tongue-tied. Considering his notoriety as the man that introduced cod-Satanism and Tolkien into Led Zeppelin’s lyrics and iconography, Page is quite the dapper English gentleman. He arrives in a chauffeured Rolls, while White and even The Edge drive themselves to the set.

Jack White in It Might Get Loud
Jack White, of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, keeps it real

While Page and White share a background in the blues, The Edge comes from somewhere else altogether. He’s long been more interested in sonics and textures than in impressing audiences with fleet-fingered technique. Page was, for a time, one of the biggest rock stars in the world, but of the three, The Edge has enjoyed persistent fame the longest. He states with total conviction that This is Spinal Tap was, for him, not funny at all: “it’s all true.” A deleted scene answers a question I’ve long had: U2’s nicknames date back to their childhood, and now even The Edge’s mother now no longer calls him David.

There’s no need for an onscreen interviewer when no one else would know better what to ask these three men than each other. When guitarists get together for gabfests, a natural topic is to wistfully reminisce over their first instruments (The Edge and White still own and play theirs). Their conversation is interspersed with short animated sequences and priceless early footage, with relics including embarrassing very early footage of U2 as gawky teenagers.

All three have enjoyed comfort and success for quite some time, so it comes as a rather awkward shift in tone when they are called to reflect on times of crisis in their careers. None were instant stars. Page’s early anxieties are the most interesting; he became a highly successful session guitarist fairly early on (working largely in the now-forgotten musical genre of Skiffle), but realized he was looking at a creative dead-end. He found release in The Yardbirds, a fertile cauldron that famously also included Beck and Clapton at various times, and arguably invented hard rock. The hair came down, the pants flared, and the cello bow came out. Multi-instrumentalist White recounts a childhood sleeping on the floor in a room too crowded with drums to leave room for a bed, and founding his first band while working the lonely job of furniture upholsterer. The Edge recalls the contemporary political turmoil of Ireland as a backdrop to his anxiety over being “just a guitarist” and possibly never a songwriter. From this crisis of confidence came the politically charged U2 standard “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” His substantial contributions to U2 were deliberately obscured by the unusually democratic band; it’s only recently that they have begun to talk more openly about their internal division of labor (generally, Edge demos the music, Bono supplies the lyrics, Larry works alongside the producer, and Adam is resident sartorialist).

Jimmy Page in It Might Get Loud
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page is now quite the dapper gent, but was once an infamous 70s bad boy that introduced cod-satanism and Tolkien to stadium rock

The natural wish is for the three to strap on their guitars and jam. So as each is celebrated as much for their songwriting as for their chops, they take turns teaching the others one of their signature tunes. The Edge’s chiming “I Will Follow” riff fails to take off, but Page’s “In My Time of Dying” provides a bed for some fantastic slide-guitar solos from all three players. The climactic closing tune is ill-chosen; The Band’s “The Weight” is without a doubt a great, classic song, but not much of a guitar showcase.

Explosions in the Sky live in Central Park, June 30, 2009

Explosions in the Sky is an instrumental post-rock quartet from Texas. Their characteristic formula of a chiming guitar power trio on top of pulsating drums is a bit more palatable than their extremely loud, menacing Scottish peers Mogwai (read our review of their April show in New York). Personally, I hear a kind of homogeneity to much of Explosions’ music that I don’t hear in other post-rock outfits like Mogwai, Sigur Rós, and Tortoise.

To oversimplify their history, the band is primarily known for two factoids. In an unfortunate coincidence, their album Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, released a few days before 9/11, featured a cover illustration of a plane and a caption reading “This plane will crash tomorrow.” Long before I actually heard any of their music, I do recall this story helping to feed the 24-hour-a-day broadcast news hysteria that followed. Better bolstering their repute, they composed the popular score to Peter Berg’s 2004 film Friday Night Lights, and they’ve attracted a significant fan base – selling out outdoor Central Park Rumsey Playfield even in the rain.

The band’s designated spokesman Munaf Rayani began the show by announcing it was their 10-year anniversary as a band. They played for about an hour and half without interruption, blending songs together into a continuous flow. From where I stood, the appreciative audience recognized and cheered many tunes. But Rayani apologized at the end of the show for things having “going off the rails,” and they walked off without an encore despite there still being some time before the Central Park curfew. For all I know, that may be their custom, but it was really surprising, and audibly disappointed everyone around me. Awkward.

California Guitar Trio & Tony Levin’s Stick Men, live at the B.B. King Blues Club, New York, June 22, 2009

The California Guitar Trio may not actually be from California (they actually hail from Belgium, Japan, and the US), but there are indeed three of them and they each play a guitar. In a way, that tells you everything and nothing you need to know. As designated spokesman Paul Richards explained during their June 22nd show at The B.B. King Blues Club in New York City’s Times Square, they met as students in one of Robert Fripp’s early Guitar Craft courses. The promising pupils became members of the touring outfits The League of Crafty Guitarists and The Robert Fripp String Quintet, and formed the CGT to present their original repertoire interspersed with well-chosen progressive rock and classical covers. As a King Crimson fan, I’ve wound up seeing them live no less than three times, all without having specifically meant to. The 1992 R.F.S.Q. show in Philadelphia still stands in my mind as one of the best concerts I’ve attended, and I recall their opening sets for King Crimson in 1995 (also in Philly) and The Trey Gunn Band in New York in 1997 going over great with audiences (during most concerts I’ve been to, audiences can’t be pried away from the bar during the opening act). Richards also told the crowd they had been recording and touring the world for 18 years, long since deserving to cease being described as former students of Fripp. (but a little namedropping never hurts!)

California Guitar Trio

Monday night’s concert was also an unmissable chance to see Tony Levin‘s Stick Men, a new band formed with fellow stick player Michael Bernier and drummer Pat Mastelotto. The droll, genial Levin is one of the world’s greatest bassists, a fan-favorite (listen for the inevitable moment when crowds go wild as Peter Gabriel introduces him on any live album he’s released in the past 25 years), and not to mention one of the world’s longest-running bloggers. Mastelotto is a powerhouse, a true drum demon obviously enjoying himself enormously on his array of acoustic drums plus various electronics a drum geek would have to identify (comments below, please). He shattered a stick at one point (startling Bernier as a bit of shrapnel flew in his direction), but deftly swapped the casualty for a new one. I’m not familiar with Bernier’s music, but as if his talents weren’t obvious on Monday night, Levin gave him props as a player who influenced his own technique (meaning a lot coming from the legend that helped pioneer the Chapman Stick instrument in the first place). Also, Bernier’s got a little bit of a Hugh Grant thing going on.

California Guitar Trio
California Guitar Trio & Tyler Trotter perform Tubular Bells

Generally speaking, the Trio gave a mellow, contemplative show, while the Stick Men came out blasting with some very dense, funky, mostly instrumental prog rock. They were really, really loud – very glad I brought my earplugs – and even chased a few people out of the venue. I’m shamefully behind on my CGT and Levin album-buying, so I wasn’t familiar with much of the later repertoire of either trio. I only own the first three CGT albums (including what I think is a rare copy of an eponymous cd I purchased at the R.F.S.Q. show, that isn’t even listed on their official site). Copies of their latest are on order from Amazon as I write, but I picked up a pristine-sounding live recording available for sale right after the show. Here’s the set list according to Hideyo Moriya’s Roadcam, along with some of my subjective comments:

  1. Punta Patri
  2. Unmei – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony rearranged by Moriya in a 1960s surf guitar style that totally, unexpectedly works.
  3. Cathedral Peak
  4. Tubular Bells / And I Know / Walk Don’t Run – A condensed version of the album-length progressive rock epic by Mike Oldfield (perhaps more famously known as the theme music from The Exorcist). Their sound guy Tyler Trotter joined the band on melodium.
  5. Portland Rain
  6. Andromeda
  7. TX
  8. Moonlight Sonata – Richards briefly described Fripp’s Guitar Craft lesson of “circulation” as a key technique that has stuck with them. Here they’ve distributed the notes among three guitars, passing single notes from one to another. I’m not an expert, but when it comes to classical music, Bach in particular seems well-suited for the guitar.
  9. Echoes – Longtime Pink Floyd fans (myself included, I must admit) recognized it from the first note, but when the major melody appeared, the audience went nuts, even more so than when some King Crimson covers appeared later in the evening! The CGT version includes a gorgeous ambient interlude, stretching the bounds of what an acoustic guitar can do when connected to all sorts of electronic devices.
  10. Eve – Levin joined them for this ballad, sounding a bit like his own “Waters of Eden”
  11. Melrose Avenue – A great, terse rocker. With Levin & Mastelotto.
  12. Blockhead – With all three Stick Men. One of my favorite CGT tunes, but they omitted any kind of solo (Fripp himself plays a stunner on the R.F.S.Q. album The Bridge Between). Amazingly, they started circulating power chords.

The Stick Men stayed on stage for the next set, which included the following (and a lot more):

  • Sasquatch
  • Red – The classic King Crimson barnstormer, which Levin modestly identified as “we didn’t write that one.”
  • Indiscipline – Sung by Bernier.
  • Soup (or Superconductor?)
  • Encore: Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II – An effortless-seeming version with the CGT. King Crimson fans will know what I’m talking about when I say here’s another possible interpretation of the “Double Trio” concept.

Levin congratulated an audience member in the first row for consuming a slice of cheesecake during one of the rockier numbers. He also described their recent, greatly meandering European tour, which sounded very exciting to someone with a normal day job. No doubt a professional musician will quickly counter that that much traveling and border-crossing is grueling. But if there’s time for even a few days off along the way, it sounds to me like a great way to see the world. Or maybe it’s just hell.

Tony Levin's Stick Men
Tony Levin’s Stick Men

Thanks for reading, and I invite anyone to please comment below. And finally, if anyone cares enough to have read this far, one last thing: fellow New Yorkers might know what I’m talking about when I say that some days New York is more New Yorky than usual. Monday was one of those days, and the nutters were out in force. On my way to the venue, I was blessed (or cursed, maybe, I’m not sure) but a green-clad street preacher wielding a cross made of twisted wire. Minutes later, the guy sitting next to me in Starbucks got an earful from a totally different preacher. And then, in B.B. King’s, one audience member in the back near me was obviously stoned; not on something relatively harmless that merely makes you stupid, but rather on the sort of thing that makes you manic and insane (cocaine? speed?). He couldn’t stop loudly babbling for the entire concert, and was almost literally bouncing off the walls. I kept hoping the management would toss him out, but no luck.