Consider this: What do Frank Zappa, David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails all have in common?
Answer? At one point during his career, guitarist Adrian Belew has played with them all.
If you’ve never heard his music, it’s hard to put the scope of Mr. Belew’s mind blowing talent into words. But in the late 1970s and throughout the ‘80s, he was a true guitar pioneer with an unusual style of playing that incorporated novel effects and creative use of the whammy bar. His ability to elicit bizarre sounds or imitate animals on the instrument made him unique amongst his generation of guitarists. As the songwriter and front man of the progressive band King Crimson for 33 years, he performed alongside composer Robert Fripp and his techniques continue to have a huge influence on guitarists today.
But Mr. Belew is hardly a left-over relic of late 20th century rock and roll. On the contrary, at the age of 69, he is still evolving, growing and creating new music—and on Saturday, April 13, Mr. Belew plays at The Suffolk Theater in Riverhead in support of his newest recording, “Pop-Sided,” which was released just last month. The legendary guitarist will perform as part of a quartet that includes Jordan Perlson on drums, Saul Zonana on keyboards, guitar, and vocals, and bassist Julie Slick.
“The record is the reason I put the quartet together,” explained Mr. Belew when asked about both during a recent phone interview from his home in Nashville, where has lived for the last 25 years. “For the last two years, I’ve been erupting with 30 new songs. The name of the record is ‘Pop-Sided’ and when I say ‘pop,’ I mean somewhere between the Beatles and King Crimson. Everyone’s saying ‘I can’t get these songs out of my head.’”
In the recording studio, Mr. Belew is a one-man show and the last 18 records have all been solo projects with him producing and playing all the instruments himself. For that reason, he has brought in three other musicians for his live shows.
“Most everything I do can be done on stage with the quartet,” explained Mr. Belew who in recent years has performed as the Adrian Belew Power Trio. He recently expanded the group by one, bringing in multi instrumentalist Saul Zonana in order to allow for additional harmonies or an extra guitar when needed.
When asked to describe what audiences can expect to hear at The Suffolk Theater on Saturday night, Mr. Belew explained there are 28 pieces in the set with half of the music being his new material.
“I touch on each era— including with Frank and David,” said Mr. Belew, referring to his main mentors, Zappa and Bowie. “I play a couple songs from the new record, I play some from the Power Trio and also King Crimson music. Now I can make those songs sound more like they did with Robert Fripp and the intertwining guitar parts.”
Mr. Belew, who was born in Covington, Kentucky, began his career as a self-taught musician and the story of his discovery has become the stuff of rock and roll legend. The year was 1977 and the place was Fanny’s Bar in Nashville. That’s where Frank Zappa found Mr. Belew performing in Sweetheart, a local cover band, after being tipped off by a chauffeur to check out the group.
Zappa asked for Mr. Belew’s contact information and six months later, invited him to audition for his band. Up until that point, Mr. Belew had played only music he heard on the radio or in cover bands. After passing the audition and joining Zappa’s band, however, he quickly realized he had a steep learning curve to conquer.
“I needed to learn to play in odd time signatures, that’s the first thing we did,” recalled Mr. Belew. “Frank showed me a couple exercises and the non-technical way he explained it made sense. I had a drumming background and I was able to get it quickly. If I didn’t have it explained that way, I wouldn’t have been able to write for King Crimson in multiple time signatures.”
Though a talented experimental musician, Zappa had a reputation for being exacting in his musical standards and he expected perfection from his band. Though people often said Zappa was difficult to work with, Mr. Belew didn’t see it that way.
“He wanted his music played consistently and correctly,” said Mr. Belew. “I followed Frank around like a puppy dog and went home with him for three months to learn the material. He took me under his wing.”
But it didn’t take long for Mr. Belew to attract the attention of David Bowie. His next major mentor lured him away from Zappa’s band in 1978 after seeing them play in Berlin. Mr. Belew soon joined the “Heroes Tour” and he remarked that playing with Bowie was in sharp contrast to the precision musical style of Zappa.
“Jumping into David’s band was as entirely different as you can get,” he said. “I’m standing beside a superstar and he wanted me to stretch out and play what I wanted, cheerleading everything I played. I needed Zappa’s tutelage to get to where I played with David. It’s as high up the ladder as you can get.”
“I liked what I was doing playing wise,” said Mr. Belew of that time in his life. “It was always thrilling to me to watch David’s reaction when I was soloing and he’s just standing there with his arms crossed, grinning like a Cheshire cat, like a proud father.”
Though in the decades that followed, he went on to play with major bands and musicians like Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, and Paul Simon who were at the forefront of the industry, Mr. Belew notes that he is now at a place where he is comfortable and content with the music he is making.
“Back then, I was finding my way. I’m happier with what I can do now than ever before—my voice and my writing abilities,” he said. “It’s a different energy when you start out and sometimes I cringe a little bit when I see the old footage. Did I wear that?
That’s the problem with the videos.
“But I continue moving forward. That’s the intent of my music.”
After more than four decades on the music scene, he also now finds that, thanks to the internet, he is attracting a whole new generation of young fans to his work.
“That’s happening and it’s a thrill,” he said. “Music came to me when I was young and I got so excited, it turned into a vocation. If I can have that effect on those starting out it’s the best reward.
“If you’re coming to hear me in concert, bring young musicians with you. They’ll want to go on the internet and find out more. There’s a huge wealth of stuff out there about me alone—and the six degrees of separation from everyone I played with.”
These days, in addition to making solo albums and touring with his band, Mr. Belew is also touting “FLUX by Belew,” an iOS app he launched four years ago that grew out of an idea he had 40 years ago.
“In ‘79 I had an epiphany while touring with Bowie in Marseilles. It was the idea of music never being the same twice,” explained Mr. Belew. “For all the decades that followed, I wondered how I could do that, knowing it would be something no one has ever done.”
Then came apps and once those arrived, Mr. Belew realized he had found a way to make his idea a reality. He connected with a company in Amsterdam and worked with cutting edge software engineers for two and a half years to design the app.
“I created six years’ worth of music. When you press go, you get 30 minutes of visuals and music that will never be the same twice,” he explained. “The songs come back, but never in the same order or with the same visuals. If you’d like to hear it again, that’s easy, you press ‘favorite’ and it puts it into a fabulous play list.”
“It’s stunning what doors it kicked open in my mind.” he added. “It’s hard to get out the word, but I’m ahead of the curve … and it’s not going away.”
Neither, would it appear, is Mr. Belew.
Adrian Belew and his new quartet perform at The Suffolk Theater, 118 East Main Street, Riverhead on Saturday, April 13, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $49 and $59 at suffolktheater.com or 631-727-4343.
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One fine body…