On August 23rd, 1999 I saw the great Bill Frisell at Ottawa’s legendary Barrymore’s Music Hall. This wouldn’t be the last concert I saw in the old decaying theatre but it was among them; despite $300,000 in renovations the Bank Street monolith was fast becoming a dinosaur. It was, however, the first time I saw Bill Frisell, and I was thrilled to be standing on the sticky dancefloor yet again, gaping in wonder up at the old stage.
Bill Frisell was my newest favourite guitar player, one of many musical gifts I received from the lady I was dating at the time. She had given me a copy of Frisell’s Gone, Just Like a Train CD and I was immediately smitten. First of all there’s the cover, a colourful blast of cartoonish creatures in a landscape reminiscent of the 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12 pinball sketch from Sesame Street. It’s drawn by Jim Woodring, who is most famous for his character named Frank and his magazine named Jim.
The music is all instrumental (though my good friend Dave has long thought that the songs probably had lyrics and melody lines that were all deleted at the last minute) and played by a trio (Bill on guitar, Alison Krauss’s brother Viktor on bass, and the ever-pervasive Jim Keltner on drums*) and it’s breathtakingly beautiful. Frisell’s guitar work astonished me. It was so fresh-sounding and airy, riding a soft razor blade between consonance and dissonance and moreover, he played really slowly. This was the first time I had been seriously taken in by a guitar player who wasn’t at all flashy, and oh I loved it so.
Of course I was hoping to hear a lot of music off of Gone, Just Like a Train it this concert but if I remember correctly I didn’t. It’s weird; I vividly remember being at this show and spending most of my time gaping up at the stage in joyful wonder yet I can’t actually visualize anyone on stage. I believe it was indeed a trio up there (Frisell certainly had a band with him. The ticket indicates that the drummer was Kenny Wolleson – who has played with his fair share of big-time musicians too – though I have no idea if Krauss was part of it) and while the set was light on material I was familiar with I remained enthralled throughout. Oddly, when I think back to the next time I saw Bill Frisell about a year and-a-half later I can picture the players like I’m watching a video in my head. There was lots from Gone, Just Like a Train at that show, and Bill kept his back to the audience for the entire set.
Anyway, just like every single one of the dozen or so times I’ve seen Frisell his playing on this night enriched my musical soul. He has an easy, laid-back*** mastery over the guitar that is quite simply like magic. How he does it I don’t know, but I do know that whenever he does do it I can’t help but to swoon.
*Jim Keltner is one of the busiest and most prolific drummers in all of drumming** and Gone, Just Like a Train is the only example I know of that justifies the very high esteem in which he is held by the music industry on the whole.
**You name it and he was probably playing on it. I was starting to compile a list but it’s ridiculous; I can’t think of anyone he hasn’t played with. Suffice to say: you’ve been listening to Jim Keltner play the drums for your entire life.
***I once saw Bill Frisell play a bebop show as a sideman to drummer Paul Motian and his playing was absolutely furious. And fast? Dude could easily be as flashy as he wants to be, yet album after album goes by and he never not once flurries up and down the neck just to show you that he can. Now that’s confidence.