Its just any other Monday in New York, a city whose cultural magnitude is 2nd only to that of Jersey City, NJ. The workday has ended, and I have retired to my abode to work on some music, when I get a text message from Web Master T Bone. Apparently Nels Cline is playing at The Living Room sitting in with Jim Campilongo, you know, just some random stuff. So, my plans adapt.
Campilongo plays every Monday night at The Living Room on the Lower East Side. There is no doubt that he is a straight up virtuoso, unrivaled by about 96.5% of guitar players on earth. I took a lesson with him once, and he certainly knows his stuff, and is a flawless player. Having said that, he just isn’t my thing. I cant explain it, but it just doesn’t connect with me, lots of notes and bending. Nels Cline on the other hand, well, we know how I feel about Nels.
This show was clearly the place to be on this particular monday, many notable NY musicians were in the crowd, it was standing room only, the one waitress could not nearly get to everyone. In recent years, as my twenties have passed the halfway point, I find myself getting less and less excited over my childhood guitar heroes. I don’t know what it is, maybe its just harder to be enthusiastic as we get older. In my early days I would go to a show hours early to get right up front and do the guitar dude thing…ya know, checkin’ out the pedals…but these days, I feel more comfortable in whichever seat has a good view and is not surrounded by loud people. That all kind of went out the window when Nels walked in, I felt like a kid hanging around his favorite pro athlete or something.
Anyhoo, the Campilongo trio went on, and um, as their name indicates, they played for a loonnnnng time (sorry, had to do it) before Nels came on. The first few songs were entertaining, full of virtuosity, clearly a tight band. But after a while, the crowd thinned out a bit…I saw one dad and his kid leave around 11:30, the kid looking clearly disappointed he did not get to see Nels play. I mean, its a monday man, come on.
Eventually, preceded by a long disclaimer about how they were ill rehearsed…Nels came to the stage. Some ridiculous hippy looking kids in the front row just completely lost their shit. Screaming, headbanging, fist pumping, just going nuts. In this one instance, I’ll forgive them, because this shit was just crazy. Well, the first song The Beatles’ “Yer Blues” was a little sloppy, but really, who cares. Its supposed to be sloppy. Next, a cinematic sounding western instrumental standard I do not know the name of, featuring a tasteful solo by Camilongo, followed by a short one by Cline…and they closed with Third Stone From The Sun by Jimi Hendrix (not to be confused with 3rd rock from the sun, the John Lithgow comedy classic)
That’s pretty much where it all exploded. Nels was just hanging in the crowd looking antsy before he came up, and he seemed to let it all out on this tune. They did a short noise improv intro, in which he picked up some type of mini megaphone and would scream into the guitar pickups, sending feedback throughout the tiny club. The bass and drums segued into the classic Hendrix rhythm section riff, and they took off from there. Campilongo just got out of the way musically, and Nels took over. I’m fairly sure he began to levitate, as his guitar shot out flames of psychedelic fire, covered in diamonds, towing a trailer full of centaurs each playing their own flying V made of solid gold. Yes, that’s exactly what it was like.
All completely accurate descriptions aside…It really did feel like watching a player with no equal. Sure, anyone could play the same notes (well, not anyone) But you instantly know it was Nels style. I imagine this is what it was like to watch someone like Hendrix play. He inflicted such emotion into everything he did, If he had spontaneously combusted on that stage, I would have completely understood, left, got a crepe, and gone home.
In this day of whatever the fuck passes for popular music, its very reassuring to know that there are still masters of their craft alive and well. Nels may be in his fifties (although he looks about 35) but no one is playing stuff like that, past or present. He had some weird cheapo Danelectro type guitar, played through a few pedals into whatever the house guitar amp was, so it’s clearly not any specific gear that makes his sound, he could have picked up an ESP Screaming Skull through a Mesa Triple Rectifier, and would still have sounded like himself. The question that comes up these days, is why did it take until he joined Wilco in 2004 for the world to discover him? Not that I was at all ahead of the curve, The first time I heard his name was about his 8th show with the band at Irving Plaza. But if it took Jeff Tweedy to bring the world a guitar hero, I’m fully ok with that. What I want to know, is when will they release his signature video game?