Young Steve Belew decided to adopt the more evocative first name of Adrian in his early 20s, but he could have easily chosen Zelig, or maybe Forrest. That’s because the 66-yearold American guitar whiz has made a habit over the past 40 years of parachuting into diverse musical situations to make a huge impact on the sounds of groundbreaking artists like Frank Zappa, the recently deceased David Bowie, Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails, Paul Simon, King Crimson and other rock icons.
In between the constant recording sessions and hectic touring schedules, Belew has found the time to also forge a thriving career as his own man with over 20 albums to his credit and a reputation as a guitar player’s guitarist.
Locking talent – and horns – with some of the most demanding and egotistical bosses on the musical landscape didn’t prove to be particularly intimidating to Belew, who told The Jerusalem Post in an email interview that he was well aware when recording with the rock & roll hall of famers that the spotlight should be on them.
“With very few exceptions people have wanted me to do what I do without adaptation, they want their musical ideas filtered through my particular talents,” said Belew. “So they encourage me to do whatever I want. If there is something in particular needed from me, I’m happy to oblige. After I’m gone, they can decide what works or doesn’t work for them. That’s exactly how it was with Bowie, Talking Heads and NIN.
Both Frank Zappa and Paul Simon had very precise ideas [about] what they wanted me to do and I followed their instruction. If I have [been] chosen to be part of something I try to be as agreeable as possible.”
That eagerness to please – as well as some not-from-this-world guitar playing – is probably why Belew has been invited to appear on landmark albums like Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti, Bowie’s Lodger, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints and NIN’s The Fragile. As a result, he also went on the road with the expanding version of the Talking Heads documented in the film Stop Making Sense.
None of it might have happened if Zappa hadn’t caught a set in 1977 by the then-27- year-old Belew, who was leading a cover band in Nashville and wondering if his career would ever advance. The finicky Zappa was impressed enough with Belew’s guitar skills to ask him to audition for, and later join, his touring band.
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“My faith in my own success was beginning to crumble simply because the music business is so youth-driven,” said Belew.
“Back then if you didn’t ‘make it’ in your 20s, you should be worried. But I never faltered in my belief that I had something unique to offer. ‘Unique’ is an even harder thing to sell nowadays."
“I’m glad I’m not starting out now. I can’t picture myself not doing music, it’s my passion, but I don’t know if I would be happy without a certain amount of recognition; it’s only natural to want to succeed.”
Whether fronting his own bands over the years or joining his more famous friends, Belew and success have walked the same path around the world many times over.
After appearing in Israel in 1986 with his then-touring band The Bears, and again last year as part of a revamped King Crimson, Belew is returning next month with the Adrian Belew Power Trio, his longstanding project that provides a broad, and highly entertaining, career overview at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv on February 3.
Originally formed in 2006, the trio then included brother-sister wunderkind rhythm section Eric and Julie Slick, whom Belew discovered while giving a guest performance at a “school of rock”-type educational camp.
“Eric and Julie played like one together in a certain way only siblings can. I saw my young self in them and knew instantly they should be helped in some way, perhaps in the same way Frank Zappa helped me. So I decided to make a trio with them,” said Belew.
“Eric left the power trio after four years to be replaced by our drummer Tobias Ralph. But Julie has now been playing with me for 10 years! We’ve had such a life, 10 years of traveling the world making ourselves and other people happy. All of us have changed together into a world class band with minimal needs and maximum experiences to draw upon which has made us very tight as friends and players. I love this trio.”
While decades younger than their band leader, the Slicks, and later Ralph, were well-versed in the eclectic progressive, jazztinged rock that Belew immersed himself in, so there was a quick learning curve.
“Fortunately Eric and Julie were raised by their father on music I had been involved in – in particular King Crimson and Frank Zappa – but not so much my solo records,” said Belew. “So yes, they were familiar with some of it and they were quick to learn the rest. If they hadn’t been on the same wavelength I don’t think I would have recognized the possibility of us working together.”
With hundreds of songs and hours of music to choose from, putting together an Adrian Below Power Trio set list can be a daunting task. But Belew said that he tries to provide a balance between some of the signature Crimson, Zappa and Heads tunes he’s identified with and the deep well of his solo material.
“Since some of my music was not originally produced in trio format there are certain songs which obviously wouldn’t work well.
But the whole concept of this power trio has been to give new life to songs and pieces of music from my past and to challenge ourselves to make the music our own,” he said, adding that the music is enhanced by his use of a looper which repeats his guitar riffs so he can solo over them.
“It’s something like having a fourth player, and over the past 10 years I’ve been writing more material with a trio form in mind. But there are no limits to what I believe we can do, so we try things and see what happens.”
With Belew’s skills in full bloom and unfettered by a superstar front man, anything could happen.
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