The ingredients were all there – the impending homecoming of Kentucky-born guitar hero Adrian Belew, a gray Saturday afternoon and a desperate need to place holiday madness on hold for a few hours. It all provided the ideal setting for me to become reacquainted with the sublime music Belew has created over the past 35 years.
To many, the Covington native is best known for the vocabulary of guitar sounds – from twang bar-happy solos to animalistic roars – that have colored his solo recordings (dating back to 1982’s The Lone Rhino) as well as the audacious works cut during a 33 year tenure with prog mainstay King Crimson (beginning with 1981’s Discipline).
Dig deeper, though, and all kinds of treasures reveal themselves, including seminal recordings with three of the pioneering acts Belew played with during the formative days of his career, specifically Frank Zappa (on 1979’s avant pop carnival record Sheik Yerbouti), David Bowie (the magnificent 1978 live set Stage) and Talking Heads (the progressive funk performances captured on the 1981 concert album The Name of This Band is Talking Heads).
But it was during and around King Crimson’s scattered periods of activity that the heart of Belew’s music fully revealed itself. The scorching nature of his guitar work had become a given. His compositions, however, began exhibiting strong echoes of Beatles-esque pop. While such inspiration was never imitative, you heard it powering through songs like Member of the Tribe (the joyous finale to 1992’s Inner Revolution album), I See You (the Lennon-esque power chord party piece off of 1994’s Here) and the Under the Radar (the rich psychedelic meditation from 2005’s Side One).
Belew has also remained very active over the decades as an instrumental composer and performer, stretching the pop inferences of his playing to more unexpected and sometimes abstract plains, as on The Gypsy Zurna (the one man Eastern safari tune from 1986’s Desire Caught by the Tail), Ring Around the Moon (an ambient slice of processed guitar music from 1995’s The Guitar as Orchestra) and b (a groove epic showcasing Belew’s Power Trio from 2009’s live-in-the-studio e).
Finally, there are the delicacies underscoring his gift as a collaborator. From that camp came Holy (one of Belew’s finest all around vocal performances featured on the 1989 Mike Oldfield album Earth Moving), Walking on Air (a gorgeously serene refection from the 1995 King Crimson reawakening record Thrak) and Life in a Nutshell (a powerhouse pop workout with his Cincinnati-based pals in The Bears from 2001’s Car Caught Fire).
The biggest rediscovery though was a bit of a revelation – a revision of The Rail Song, a bittersweet but anthemic remembrance of a lifelong fascination with trains originally featured on 1983’s Twang Bar King. But the version that hit me last weekend was an unadorned version from 1993’s The Acoustic Adrian Belew that stripped the tune down to a stark confessional while enhancing the song’s very natural sense of drama.
That was as much Belew as I could squeeze into a single afternoon. Left untested in this Belew review was Fuse, the new computer app he designed that delivers tunes in an infinite number of variations. That means the guitarist will have an especially keen job condensing a catalog of such masterful music into a single performance this weekend. His Sunday concert at the 20th Century Theatre will conclude a two month tour in his old Cincy stomping grounds with his comparatively newer Power Trio mates, bassist Julie Slick and drummer Tobias Ralph.
Then again, exploring the generous terrain existing between power pop accessibility and groundbreaking instrumental technique, composition and improvisation has always been the driving force behind the music of this Kentucky guitar pioneer.
In essence, that is Belew’s life in a nutshell.
Adrian Belew Power Trio with Saul Zonana perform at 8 p.m. Dec. 21 at the 20th Century Theatre, 3021 Madison Rd. in Cincinnati. $24, $28. Call (513) 731-8000, (800) 745-3000 or got to www.ticketmaster.com.