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Music Consumption: Tom Verlaine
11/20/1999 Tom Verlaine: live film soundtracks

I managed to realize a longtime desire by seeing Tom Verlaine perform live. This was at a program of live improvisations of soundtracks to avant garde silent films from the 20s and 30s--a favorite era and milieu for me, since I'm also a fan of Man Ray, two of whose films were on the bill. Never having been there before, I have to say that Columbus is a nice town, and it's an extra bonus to have friends there.

Saturday night we were at the 7:00 show at the WexnerCenter in Columbus, Ohio. Tickets guaranteed admission, but not necessarily good seats, so we showed up early. After a bit of a wait outside the theater in the center's lower level, we saw Tom come out with Jimmy and Tim Lanza, walking swiftly past the crowd on some errand or other. Tom's really tall. There's no mistaking him for anyone else, and he doesn't look like someone who's about to turn 50.

The theater was smallish--maybe holding 200 people max--and covered in neutral gray carpeting. I picked an aisle seat in the third row, which turned out to be an ideal spot. There was a low stage at the front with a video monitor on the floor at center stage, two amps (Tom: borrowed Matchless combo, Jimmy: Line 6 combo) on chairs, chairs for Tom and Jimmy, guitars (Tom: sanded-down Strat with chrome-plated pickup covers and no vibrato arm that I could see, and a blond Tele he didn't use; Jimmy: Strat), and assorted effects (mostly a bunch of Boss and Ibanez stuff; Tom was using a Tube Screamer, and Jimmy had an Ibanez modulation delay; others were hard to identify as I didn't want to get too close and make anyone nervous about the gear).

Tom didn't really acknowledge the audience much, addressing all his comments to Jimmy or Tim Lanza. Between films he'd take a swig from a coffee mug, retune, and introduce the next film with a low-E hit and the ascending jazzlike arpeggio. With each film, the arpeggio would be made strange in some way--heavy vibrato, Jimmy playing "wrong" chords over it, etc., making it seem like an inside joke of sorts.

Etoile d'Mer

This one began with technical difficulties. After signalling the projectionist with a low E hit, Tom's guitar cut out. It turned out to be the Tube Screamer--Tom borrowed Jimmy's, they rewired, cracked a few inside jokes, and got going again.

The soundtrack to Man Ray's surrealist relationship parable began with wistful sparse, sad lines. Very Warm and Cool-ish. As a Man Ray fan, I was looking forward to this one, although the film-through-rippled-glass effect gets a bit old. About halfway through, the film segues to a journey by train, to which Jimmy supplied the wheels-on-tracks sound (muted strumming through the Ibanez delay), and Tom put in some surprising Roy Buchanan style pedal steel licks. For some reason, I'd expected Tom's volume swells to be from a pedal, but no--just pinky on the volume knob. The man's a master.

Fall of the House of Usher
Creepy as you'd expect, this one featured lots of slide and digital delay--very "dark ambient." Tom laid in some screeching slide work (shades of "Break It Up"), and Jimmy did some guitar-as-percussion in time with the recurring hammer motif of the film. Tom also banged his slide between the neck and upper horn for extra creakiness. Overall, a heavy atmosphere of dread, and rather unlike the stuff Tom's known for. I'd definitely like to see this one released.
Emak Bakia
Man Ray again. A 3-chord rockin' tune, with Tom holding down some leads that verge on Hot-Rod/Surf territory. It occurred to me that this is definitely the guy who once said that "Music from the Twilight Zone" was his favorite LP. At times I wondered what he might do if there were a full band behind him on this one. Jimmy did an amusingly appropriate pick-drag for the ripping of the collars section.

They Caught the Ferry

Again, 3-chord rocking tune--Track 7 from the Cambridge MA Middle East show from October 98--with a low-E and -A based lead from Tom. Someone needs to release more of this guy's instrumental stuff. Definitely cool music to hang out to, and I've had it lodged in my head since. I can imagine this film getting infuriating if left completely silent, but the soundtrack's ascending changes built tension perfectly in what would otherwise be driving-around-the-countryside scenes.
Autumn Mist
Wistful sad music to go with a post-breakup meditation. Excellent mood music.
The Life and Death of 9413--A Hollywood Extra
This began with happy-bumpkin-in-the-big-city music, kind of like a parody of "Boulevard." Whenever the lead character moved his lips, Jimmy did a Peanuts-style wa-wa-wa-wa talking effect. The ending of the film--involving the afterlife--featured some of those creepy etherial slide whoops.
Ballet Mecanique
For some reason, a blank in my memory, but I do have recollections of swirling delayed melodies.
No encore; Tom seemed happy or at least bemused by the sustained applause, but certainly in a hurry to get out of there. Needing a smoke before the next show? I've talked a lot about Tom, but Jimmy impressed me greatly also. I don't know if I'd say he has a distinctive sound (certainly I wouldn't be able to pick his playing out unannounced), but I would say that he's very versatile. What I've heard on record with Tom didn't sound like the blues solo tune I heard on the radio once, and neither sounded like his performances in the soundtracks. The playing chemistry between those two guys is impressive (to me, anyway).

While I did have a connection to the guy who loaned Tom the Matchless (co-worker of a friend), I didn't get to meet Tom or Jimmy. I did hear that there was an emergency last-minute run for patch cords, but that's about the extent of the gossip that filtered out to me.

For tone-heads on the list, I'd say Tom's tone in this show was definitely more toward the Warm and Cool side than the hotter, edgier tube overdrive sound (Ritz 1981, or even track 7 of Middle East 98; see above). This may have been due to the Matchless, which was more powerful than could comfortably be cranked, I think. The overall volume level was perfect for me--I didn't need to put in the hearing protectors.

I'm really glad I went to this--definitely catch the performances closest to you, if possible, and rope other people into it, too. My wife counted it as one of the peak live music entertainment experiences she's had--truly entertaining. And we've both sat through enough experimental film to know how sorely some of it needs the kind of structure these soundtracks gave it. Well done.