words & photos by Benjamin Lozovsky
It could have been a showdown - a forceful match of skills, an exhilarating yet grueling slugfest. Instead, it was purely symbiotic and nurturing, a solemn and unwavering alliance between two endlessly energetic musical minds. Marc Ribot and Nels Cline, perhaps the two greatest living guitarists dispensing a seamlessly cerebral yet hefty blend of virtuosic avant-jazz and rock fusion, performed in tandem Wednesday night at Le Poisson Rouge.
Despite being giants and contemporaries in their field, the overwhelming icons of free form, genre-bending adventurism, the two had seemingly never met on stage before. It was the kind of hallowed moment most modern downtown jazz obsessives would relive and replay endlessly, a watershed of creative confluence with 'I was there' written all over it. Only announced a few weeks before the event, it was billed as a special performance for the 3rd anniversary of the West Village club. Since its opening, Le Poisson Rouge has proved to be a vivid playground for envelope-pushing downtown musicians. Ribot and Cline have settled into the venue comfortably with numerous shows there since it opened, as have many of their fellow protagonists.
There wasn't any sort of program or description provided beforehand, just the two names listed on the bill. With their wide-ranging approach to music, the two share infinite similarities. Their methods couldn't be more different. Cline with his smooth tone, effortless musicianship and neatly set up workstation complete with rug, Ribot with an abrasive sound, hectically imperative playing and a rat's nest of wires and pedals piled on the ground in front of him. Yet the two were the perfect foils to challenge and enhance the other's abilities.
It unfolded as a completely improvised performance, an hour and a half long set of seven spontaneously generated explorations. Calling them songs wouldn't do them justice - it was more akin to setting two ants behind glass and watching them instantly augment their little world into a thriving civilization.
Beyond picking which guitar to complement each other in between numbers, there was nothing more than subtle visual cues and finely focused ears on each others playing to coordinate Cline and Ribot's efforts. The two guitarists had no framework or structures, and perhaps most importantly no preconceptions coming in, according to Cline. "We did some country type stuff for the sound-check, so we started with that...but everything was unrehearsed," Cline said.
They started their performance with several all acoustic numbers that covered boundless ground, ranging from devilishly sarcastic and percussive conversation-like structures, to atmospheric, bluesy romps that started with Polynesian flavor, quickly turned vast, pastoral and disjointed, and ended with a storm of classical finger picking.
There was enough flourishes of extended techniques like surreal harmonics and the use of odd sound-mutating tools, but it was limited, each guitarist instead intently focused on tone and togetherness. On one number, a disparate and lonely melodic meditation that mashed up images of a desolate western frontier and a rainy Japanese tea ceremony, Cline evoked the chilling vibrations of a Koto, the Japanese plucked string instrument, while Ribot formed drony and dark undercurrents, each moving downward perpetually yet coming together precisely unpredictably for jarringly harmonious moments.
When they turned towards an electric sound, it was always enigmatic while never bludgeoning. Even in forceful, grunge-like sections that could pass as a Soundgarden outtake or a turbine-accelerated Radiohead stomper, Cline and Ribot focused on a spellbinding interplay rather than guitar god might. It was a highly advanced dialogue, seesawing back and forth as each musician switched roles yet kept mathematically aligned. It was a gold standard for precision and musical communication; they ended with a more straightforward free-jazz ballad that mutated into psychotic, atonal guitar solos from both players that inexplicably overlapped with little wavering.
After the show, Cline admitted that he had his trepidations about the gig. "I felt really nervous about this show beforehand, but today I felt calm," Cline said. It must have been the career long lead-up to what was a glorious first date, many years in the making.