Marc Ribot’s Live Vanguard Album: Wild, Surreal Downtown Guitar Fun

by delarue

Guitarist Marc Ribot‘s intense, brilliant new Live at the Village Vanguard album (due out May 13 from Pi Recordings) is all about tension and suspense, fueled by his fondness for noise and assault on one hand, and his laserlike sense of melody on the other. To say that Ribot is at the peak of his powers right now is pretty amazing, considering that about 25 years ago he was hyped as being something that no living, breathing musician could possibly live up to. In the years since, he’s come to integrate his squalling, shredding centerstage persona with a stunning command of idioms from across the musical spectrum. Who knew that Ribot was a genius country player? Tift Merritt did, and that’s why she hired him. Even by Ribot’s standards, he’s got a hectic series of shows coming up starting on May 11 at 8 PM with his Ceramic Dog trio (with bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith) at Rough Trade on an edgy twinbill with Chris Cochrane’s Collapsible Shoulder with Brian Chase, Mike Duclos and Kevin Bud Jones. The next day Ribot is at le Poisson Rouge with this album’s brilliant, cross-generational rhythm section, Henry Grimes on bass and Chad Taylor on drums. Then on May 13 at 8 Ribot plays a live score to Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’ at Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Ave. And on May 16 his group Los Cubanos Postizos is back at the Poisson Rouge at 7:30ish.

This is a characteristically ambitious effort, recorded during Ribot’s first stand as a bandleader at the Vanguard. It starts with a fifteen-minute one-chord jam and ends with a surprisingly straight-ahead, bluesmetal-tinged romp with a long, suspensefully shuffling drum solo. A lot of it is twisted, evil black magic. But there’s also a gentle, sincere, straight-up trad version of I’m Confessin worthy of Jim Hall. While that testifies to Ribot’s legendary mutability, it’s his signature stuff here that stuns a noisy crowd, beginning with the night’s first number, Coltrane’s Dearly Beloved, Grimes opening it with a neatly shifting, bowed introduction that takes them by surprise. From there, Ribot pulls purposefully and then frenetically against the center, through rises and dips, a brief, haunting, nebulously Middle Eastern interlude, skronk-funk, unimpeded squall and a grimly lowlit drum solo to which Ribot adds eerie blue-light flickers. It’s as much psychedelic art-rock as it is jazz, and it’s riveting.

They segue into Albert Ayler’s The Wizard, done essentially as a boogie with similar dynamic shifts, Ribot holding the center throughout Grimes’ utterly unexpected, marvelously spacious solo before wailing back into goodnatured bluesmetal tempered with downtown grit. By contrast, Old Man River is a clinic in restraint: you can tell that everybody, especially Taylor – who, with his restless rolls and jabs, absolutely owns this number – wants to cut loose but knows they have to chill. Again, Grimes chooses his spots with a spare majesty: it’s a treat to hear somebody as out-there as he can be playing with such a dark, austere intensity. They start Coltrane’s Sun Ship pretty straight-up – if you can call Ribot’s sunbaked, distorted tone straight-up – before taking it into jagged, sidestepping ferocity and then some boisterous leapfrogging from Taylor.  The album’s longest track is Bells, skirting a low-key ballad theme, like Bill Frisell feeling around for some steady footing, negotiating circular, hypnotic spirals, Grimes’ focus anchoring Ribot’s jagged let’s-peel-the-walls shards, droll Stephen Foster quotes and a second-line tinged solo from Taylor. The subtext here is Albert Ayler, with whom Grimes played at the Vanguard the last time he was onstage there prior to his show – almost half a century ago.  You can expect all this and much more at any of Ribot’s upcoming shows, especially at the Poisson Rouge gig on the 12th.