While his name may not be familiar to the casual rock fan, the very mention of Adrian Belew’s name to the shoulderbag-and-black-glasses-wearing members of the rock intellegensia will get you bombarded with phrases like “prog-rock legend,” “Beatle-esque,” “guitar god” or any number of lavish superlatives. This is the fate of the well-known sideman, the moderately successful solo artist and the reliable fill-in performer — relative anonymity to the normal fan, and legendary status to the obtusely devoted. For nearly 40 years, Belew has been a quietly influential musical chameleon.
You’ve probably heard his work, for instance, during his many stints with prog-rock groups like King Crimson, or caught him working as a sideman for the likes of Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Paul Simon or The Talking Heads. And yet, even now, you might have a hard time placing his exact contribution.
“My style, if you want to call it that, is to have no particular style,” Belew says in a phone interview with Xpress. “If someone asks me to be a part of their music, I can offer them five different types of ideas, and five different things to chose from. I think that’s what has kept me viable through a few generations of music.”
But as his 40th year in the business approaches, Belew isn’t looking forward to gold watches and golf courses. Instead, he’s touring the country with two musicians half his age under the Adrian Belew Power Trio moniker. And he loves every minute of it.
“At this point, I could be playing with some jaded old guys, or I could be doing what I’m doing now, which is playing with two young kids that not only keep up with me, but inspire me to go further,” Belew reflects.
He’s referring to the brother and sister tandem of Eric and Julie Slick (on drums and bass, respectively), who joined up with Belew in 2006 to form the Power Trio. The siblings are graduates of the Philadelphia-based Paul Green School of Rock Music, an actual academy that teaches young people about rock ‘n’ roll.
At the ripe old ages of 20 and 21, the pair has been impressing audiences around the world with their virtuosity, but it’s their youthful attitude that caught Belew’s attention. They add a fresh set of ears to interpret his music, much of which was recorded before they were born.
“It’s the best situation for me, because it’s giving me this energy and revitalizing a lot of what I’m doing,” notes Belew. Not surprisingly, he even speaks about the Slicks with a bit of playful envy. “[Eric and Julie] grew up on every kind of music. They know the Beatles almost as well as I do. They’ve played all of their lives, and played so intently that it’s been the entire focus of their lives. They don’t have driver’s licenses. They still live with their parents.”
Playing with musical savants seems to suit Belew well. In fact, playing with the siblings has cast Belew in a different role within the band, sometimes having to follow the lead of his band mates, whose musical connection borders on supernatural.
“There is a kind of chemistry between them that is unique, and I think that it’s something that siblings have,” he says. “I can see them on stage, and they will look at each other in a certain way, and it’s like they are reading each other’s minds. Sometimes, they are inventing it on the spot.”
But The Adrian Belew Power Trio isn’t just about who can play the fastest and the most precise—it’s about the music. And Belew says that’s where the focus should always be.
“[People] want the real thing, and when they see it and recognize it, they say, ‘Wow, that’s what I’ve really been missing.’ ”
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
The Adrian Belew Power Trio plays Stella Blue (31 Patton Ave.) on Sunday, Aug. 19. 7 p.m. 236-2424.