July 17th, 2005
I arrived at the Park West in Chicago yesterday around 5:30. I’d recently awoke from a short nap so I got there a bit early figuring I’d grab a cup of joe. But, when I got down there, I saw that there was already a line forming in front of the Park West so I hastily turned onto Clark Street as I recalled a parking ramp just around the corner. I would do without the coffee and instead jockey for a good seat. Soon enough I found myself standing in line with a couple dozen other folks. For a show that veers perilously close to progressive rock, if not being squarely in the middle of it, I was surprised to see that there were a few hotties in line. A cute blonde who was probably all of 18 was there with her parents and I spied other women with their boyfriends/husbands. It was a hot day and the thoughtful folks down the block at the Ben & Jerry’s shop were kind enough to give away samples of some kind of mocha smoothie hoolie. Needless to say, the burst of cool was most welcome. At one point, a group of guys came out of the venue and walked by us carrying boxes. Belew was one of them. Everyone said hi or cheered and he greeted us. It was weird to see how short he was. I mean, he’s about average height but I’m 6′2″ so, for me, he’s short. I’ve stood close to the guy before but he’s always been up on stage. It always amazes me how short rock musicians are. You get this image in your mind of these goliaths with their guitars weaving magic and then, when you’re right next to them on level ground, you find out they’re the most ordinary people. That was one of the big things for me when I went to the Rock’n'Roll Hall of Fame a few years back. I don’t think any of the guys in the Rolling Stones are taller than 5′5″ and weigh more than 100 pounds. Ian Anderson’s (of Jethro Tull) stage costume from Tull’s 1978 tour was on display and next to it was one of Stevie Nicks’ dresses from around the same time. I swear that Nicks’ garb dwarfed his. Anyway, the guy at the end of the procession looked at us and said, “Get ready to ROCK!”
Around 6:30, the doors opened. We hussled in and I found that the normally open space in front of the stage was littered with tables and chairs. I grabbed a seat just right of center in the 4th row. The opening band was called Pava and I can’t find jack about them on the Internet. I’d never heard of them and was kind of annoyed as I’d hoped that the evening would be entirely devoted to Adrian Belew. I overheard a conversation a guy across from me was having about music so I struck up a conversation with him. He was a big King Crimson fan and he and his friend had driven the 200 miles from Springfield, Illinois for the gig. Roughly on time, Pava hit the stage. They were 4 guys in their mid- to late-20s and started off with a cover of Neil Young’s “Fuckin’ Up”. It was sort of humorous as it was an all-ages show and it was odd to hear Neil Young being done at an Adrian Belew show. However, they did a good version, stomping version of it. I really appreciated the fact that I was in front of the drum kit so they were nice’n'loud. They went on and did originals for the rest of their set and most of the songs were quite good. A couple were thumping punk tunes but most of them were spacey pop songs. The only comparison that I can think of at the moment is make XTC more psychedelic. Not a good analogy, I know, but it’s the best I have right now. I ran outside for a choke during the break.
I came back in and prepared myself for Mr. Belew. I’d never seen him solo before, just with King Crimson three times. Around me was quite a mix of people. A few guys in their 20s sprinkled amidst several in their 40s or 50s. Right in front of me sat a family. A middle-aged couple with their three kids, who were all teenagers. Two boys and a girl. I felt kind of sorry for the girl as I imagined that she’d been dragged there by her parents to see some old fart play boring music.
Around 8:30, the band took the stage. The guy who had told us, “Get ready to ROCK!”, was the bass player. And he wasn’t kidding. I don’t know what the opening number was but it was heavy. I was sitting in front of the bass amp so I could hear it loud and clear. Unfortunately, there were times when I could barely hear Belew’s guitar. The second song was the great King Crimson song, “Dinosaur”. They followed this up with “Ampersand” from Belew’s Side One, which came out earlier this year. I fucking love this song! And it was great live. To be honest, I’m not overly familiar with Belew’s solo catalog so I didn’t recognize most of the songs. But I must say that it was paced really well. There were plenty of his eccentric pop songs and they were interspersed with hefty doses of his more freaky instrumental nature. For the latter, the drummer and bassist would hold down the rhythm and Belew would just go crazy freaky styly with his guitar and effects boxes. In the middle of the set, Adrian announced that they were going to play some songs from Op Zop Too Wah as he’d never had a chance to tour behind that album. I was really impressed with the songs so I’ll have to go buy that album. While he also played a smattering of King Crimson songs with which I was obviously familiar, the highlight of the night for me was “Big Electric Cat”. On one hand, it’s a blatantly catchy pop song but it’s a bit weird with these odd cat-like scowls culled from the guitar and a chanting refrain of “Big electric cat – big electric cat”. I sang along and just slipped into the moment.
One of the great things about the show was how Belew & Company belied the stodgy reputation of progressive rock. They were just up there having fun, really. Smiling and laughing with each other and talking to the audience. Plus there was a man and a woman a couple tables down who started dancing to, if I’m not mistaken, Crimson’s “Three of a Perfect Pair”. The band did two encores, the first of which began with Crimso’s “Elephant Talk”. The crowd roared when they heard the opening notes and anyone who wasn’t already standing got to their feet and shook their booty. The final song of the night was a chaotic version of “Theela Hun Ginjeet”, also by Crimson. It was sort of weird to see that teenage girl dancing and getting into the music right next to a guy in his mid-50s.
When I walked out the door, my ears were ringing so I knew it was a good night. I found my car and hit the road.
Next show is the California Guitar Trio at Shank Hall on Thursday. I e-mailed the band’s management about recording the show and photography. Much to my surprise, band member Paul Richards wrote back saying that I can basically record the show however I want as long as I don’t disturb anyone. So I should, at the very least, be able to take a few snaps of the gig.
OK, I am off like a prom dress to run errands and such. Plus I hope to be able to put together a Belew-themed show and have it posted this evening. I’ve got a show of him with The Bears, a solo gig, and some King Crimson recorded here in Madtown ready to be poked, prodded, and molded into a podcast.