Review: Bill Frisell at Continental Club Saturday

By Patrick Beach

Editor’s note: This article was originally published May 25, 2014

Put an artist like Bill Frisell in a room like the Continental Club and there’s bound to be an outbreak of magic. The versatile guitar virtuoso in that intimate space? If you’re in Austin and not occupying a hospital bed and this guy is in town and you don’t go? Hmm, how to put? You. Are. Just. Dumb.

Saturday, the second of two nights at the CC ahead of a Tuesday night gig when Frisell and band will be slumming at Lincoln Center, was something else entirely. It was certainly the loudest and rockingest set I’ve ever seen him unpack at the Continental, in part because it contained possible selections from his upcoming album, “Guitar in the Space Age!,” a celebration of the early pop and surf music on which he cut his musical teeth before he tumbled into Miles and Monk and became, to use an incredibly reductive term for such an expansive and expressive player, a jazz musician. (The record is also reportedly a nod to the 60th anniversary of the Fender Telecaster. Frisell, in a fit of contrarianism or maybe just open-mindedness, instead played a Collings, built just a few miles west of downtown.)

“I’ve played more than 50 years and I’ve never really played this stuff,” Frisell said earlier in the day in an interview as local Tele master Redd Volkaert played a Saturday matinee. “I’m learning so much. I just got old enough I realized I really love this stuff.”

With the estimable Greg Leisz on pedal steel and guitar, the quartet made the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” sound like a hymn, which it kind of is anyway, and Leisz and Frisell were in full Vulcan mind meld mode, thinking a bar or two ahead of one another, paraphrasing one another or offering counterpoints.

Frisell’s known for his love of the pedalboard, with which he explores dreamlike textures in a style that’s tentative and considered, which is exactly the way he talks. (Not that he said a word from the stage Saturday, which was fine.) That and his musical restlessness make for something much more than jazz, which is as it should be because if you’re Bill Frisell, Guitar Virtuoso, you should be able to play anything you want and to see the world of song as one big, chapterless book that invites surprising and serendipitous connections. One of those happened during Duane Eddy’s rockabilly instrumental, “Rebel Rouser,” which at one point my wife noted sounded like it was becoming “I’ll Fly Away.” And I thought, That’s this guy’s whole point.

It was a slow build of a set, with “Pipeline” as the peak. The Chantays classic has been covered by everybody from Agent Orange to Stevie Ray Vaughan, but Frisell made it sound as original as if he’d written it over a latte at Jo’s across the street as SoCo tourists puzzled over where the guide book said Mighty Cone was supposed to be but wasn’t. They encored with the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl, which felt like a recessional, which it kind of already is.

In the interview, Frisell said he keeps coming back to the Continental simply because he loves playing there. He first came to Texas, and Austin, he said, in 1993.

“It was another world, he said. “I wasn’t the typical thing they have here. And Steve (Wertheimer, the club’s owner) kept having me back and making me feel welcome.”

He’s welcome anytime.

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