by Kurt Gottschalk
photo by Peter Gannushkin
The pairing of Nels Cline and Marc Ribot was such a perfect prospect that it almost seemed bound to fail. Each of the guitarists is so enigmatic that their first meeting onstage — at Poisson Rouge in Manhattan’s West Village on June 15 — was easy to anticipate but difficult to prognosticate. The meeting was even seen as significant enough that what could have been a concert preview became a Downbeat cover story.
The two guitarists move in similar circles but are quite different. The difference might be summed up by saying that while Cline can play anything, Ribot can play anywhere. Cline is a chameleon who can find a place whether he’s playing with the rock band Wilco or out improvisors such as Andrea Parkins or Gregg Bendian, or backing Yoko Ono or painter Norman Wisdom. In the Downbeat story he’s even quoted as saying “I don’t want to have a style ... I’ll do whatever it takes to communicate the essence of the song.”
Ribot is no less versatile but always immediately recognizable. Whether playing with Laurie Anderson or John Zorn or as a sideman or leader for any number of groups, his sharply rhythmic playing is unmistakeable. That they’re both supremely talented and adept at working in varieties of settings was never the question. But with so much that they might do, it was hard to imagine what they actually would.
They began a set that would run close to 90 minutes at a natural starting point, Ribot leaning toward rhythm and Cline toward melodic runs, and worked toward a common ground that found both pulling Ayleresque lines off the necks of their acoustic guitars.
They brought the first piece to a close in short time and then started an easy blues with Cline playing slide. It was quickly taken over, however, by a spritely melody, blue turned to spring green. From there they built a bass heavy riff that morphed into unplugged skronk, each section lasting less than two minutes. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was the blues foundation that freed them to explore. Both gentlemanly, each always complementing the other, they shared a conviction to keep moving without pushing too hard.
Having covered considerable stylistic ground in the first two pieces and first quarter hour, they relaxed into what they had newly made their own. On the next piece, Cline played harplike repetitions over Ribot’s jagged lines, building to more slide work from Cline as Ribot pounded a bass line. For a third piece Cline prepped his guitar strings and they played a fragmented Tin Pan Alley that incorporated a bit of flamenco and other, less explicable gestures.
When they switched to electric (Ribot playing a hollowbody Gibson, Cline on a lap steel played with a bow) they created a mountainous noise that moved almost unfathomably into a crowded groove. Cline took over with his electronic effects pushing into an electric abstract Americana. Ribot sang “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” over a quiet squall before then made their way back to a distorted Ayleressence. The magic was borne of their knowing that they didn’t have to stay in one place, nor did they have to rush anywhere.