I am a Marc Ribot enthusiast so when local musician Neil Watson sent me a message to say that Ribot was coming to New Zealand I whooped for joy. My first thought was, wow, this will be the good shit. My next thought was, oh yeah I want to interview that cat about his musical and social activism. Watson was to open for him which pleased me. Watson was a good fit for this gig. An iconoclast multi genre improviser himself.
I put out a few feelers to people connected to the tour, letting them know that a local Jazz Journalist was keen to interview Ribot. I heard nothing back and assumed that the tour would be whistle-stop; this is often the case when a single New Zealand concert follows an Australian tour. I let it drop with some regret.
Because I keep an eye on the wider improvising scene, I was aware that Ribot toured Ceramic Dog the previous month. I love that band. Ribot with band mates Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith are a force ten hurricane. Wild and free-ranging but subtle at the eye of the storm; Jazz infused while taking few prisoners from the past. They are the music of everyman and all time. I learned at the venue that this was not a Ceramic Dog concert but Marc Ribot on solo acoustic guitar. He is known for the diversity of his projects and I would turn up to a Ribot gig if he was just whistling.
My partner and I arrived early as we wanted good seats. Amazingly we found seating in the front row and this proved a blessing and a problem. A blessing because we could see and hear Ribot with crystal clearly. A problem because of what happened next. A rotund bearded man clumsily took the seat next to us. As he seated himself heavily I could smell the booze on his breath. Fucking drunks. This guy had been pre-loading for at least a decade. He struggled to focus and said, ‘I can’t believe that Marc Robot is here; this guy plays with Zorn’. He was right to disbelieve because his drunken buffoonery denied him the entire experience.My first act on arriving at the venue was to approach the Tuning Fork floor manager and ask about photographs. He told me of a request from Ribot for absolute quiet. It was solo acoustic guitar, not Ceramic Dog and at Ribot’s request the venue turned off the air-conditioning and fridges. Camera clicks were obviously out of the question unless between numbers. I respected that and took photographs unobtrusively during moments of applause. This was a special gig that required a womb of engaged silence. Audience and musician locked into an embrace of sound.
Because of the above, what happened next was all the more appalling. The drunk, who was so excited about hearing Ribot fell into a deep stupor at the first note. It was a stupor with sound effects and alarming floor-wards lurches. At first his awful wheezes were low volume, but as the concert progressed they became multi-phonic.
After carefully arranging himself, foot on his guitar case, hunched over his ancient acoustic guitar, Ribot dropped into the performance zone. Balanced gently on his knee was an incredible 1937 Gibson L-00; a simply wonderful instrument. When he plays solo he prepares by withdrawing from outside influences. Before a concert he examines a plethora of possible tunes, weighing up musical ideas and searching for new and often oblique ways to tell stories. He seldom has a set list in mind and lets the music and the moment take him where it may. This is a frightening high wire act and only a master improviser would attempt it. Putting yourself in such danger is fraught with risk and an unexpected audience distraction could be fatal. Ribot is more than up to such a challenge. He is one of the worlds greatest improvisers and an acknowledged master of his instrument.
The guitarist was deeply absorbed throughout his astonishing performance. creating an orchestral sound and telling stories free from ego and constraints. In Zen like fashion he examined the various tunes, turning them upside down or examining them from an oblique angle. Although lightly miked, the sound was fatter than an 18 piece orchestra. The subtleties all astonishing micro journeys, complete in themselves. Naked improvising at its best. The journey took us into the classical Spanish or Cuban guitar world, it traversed standards, Delta blues, Coltrane; I could even detect the all but forgotten vibe of Eddie Lang and Carl Kress. At times avant-garde and at other times pastoral. This was a night that I will never forget. Everyone there was spellbound…….except for one fool.
I will now relate my communication moment with the great man. I value it even though I wish it had been other than it was. There were two moments when Marc Ribot looked up and engaged directly with me. I know that I didn’t imagine it. My partner Darien had left her seat long before to sit elsewhere. The fumes and lurching were doing her head in. (Reprise) Fucking drunks. During one particularly drunken wheeze Ribot looked directly at me. Although only a few feet away, I tried to make myself invisible. My superpowers deserted me. Shit, shit, shit I thought, he must think it’s me. I quickly inclined my head sideways towards the drunk, hoping that he could see my gesture in the gloom. Then I lunged out and jabbed the man hard in the ribs.
Ribot caught the gesture and gave me the hint of a smile and a brief nod. That last gesture confirming that my desperate telepathic signal was received; an acknowledgment that it was the fool disturbing the force and not me. This was better than an interview; my superpowers were back and we were communicating by telepathy. Emboldened I reached across again and again to jab the fools ribs. I am not an aggressive man, but the great Marc Ribot had given me permission.
And all the while the music flowed unabated, wonderful music. The art music of everyman.Footnote: Neil Watson acquitted himself well and added to the enjoyment of the evening. He played three types of electric guitar plus his pedal steel guitar; his set list ranging freely across genres. A Nirvana tune, a Hendrix referencing ‘Hear my train a comin’, a nice tune composed by his partner and the Kiwiana classic Blue Smoke as high points from his set.
Marc Ribot: Solo acoustic guitar at the Tuning Fork, Auckland, New Zealand, August 2015 – supporting act Neil Watson (guitars) with Rui Inaba (upright bass).