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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Bill Frisell at XJazz Festival, Lausitzer Platz, Berlin, 5/9/2024

Photo by Beat Halberschmidt / Victor's Places

The pulse of doof-doof resonates throughout the contemporary church, psyching up the Berlin punters for a night with the gentile American guitar legend, Bill Frisell. Soon after, the beat is switched up to a kind of Sunday chill-out groove, contemporary soul; the volume, slightly lowered. Before long, the techno is back. Only in Berlin.

In an act of public defiance, one anarchic, heavy-set man ignores the safety barrier to sit on the church organ stool. Soon after he is shooed away by a shocked sound engineer. It’s a rebellious city, this one. There are a good handful of Frisell clones in the audience and one guy who looks strikingly like bass player Nick Dunston. Turns out it is Nick Dunston. He’s in the support band. Most of the Bill fanboys hover around the guitar side of the stage, taking photographs of Bill’s resting guitar and his little collection of stuffed animals, all within grabbing distance. The crowd is split into two distinct areas: the guitar side, which is dense, and the piano side, sparse. Lotta greys in the church tonight but there was one silver-haired lady with a lip stud piercing, reminding you once again of the city you’re in.

Tonight's demographic? Old, white, but interesting. Bill is apparently some kind of style icon. He alone is responsible for the look of the circular glasses, the likes of which so many have since adopted. Is this a coincidence? An homage? For every clone, there is an atypical, younger counterpoint. The woman with the Kraftwerk Autobahn tote wins the merch game this evening.

Support act trumpeter Anthony Hervey commands the stage in his electric blue oversized shirt covered in bright yellow fans. The print is as fun and confident as the bouncy compositions.

“We play the way we live,” Hervey announces, “We’re gonna have a good time.”

It’s the speedier second piece that really wins over the crowd. The first trumpet solo cracks the ice and is met with thunderous applause which resonates up into the church’s high ceiling. Jesus is giving a thumbs up.

Pianist Johannes Von Ballestrem’s sock game is strong: rainbow argyle. At one point, he is offered the space for a sweet and delicate piano solo that segues into one of those jazz songs that comes on in the movie when the protagonist is strolling along in the moonlight, alone in the rain, wondering where it all went wrong in his life, possibly contemplating suicide, but most likely just in need of some tenderness and understanding, in the form of hard liquor. You know the kind of tune I’m talking about. During a ballad, some guy with a set of keys on his belt wanders the periphery of the room offering a free Wollesonic massage to every seated person he passes, and smacking one woman in the face.

Hervey’s anthem “Soul Food” is hard to resist. Guest singer Natalie Greffel is so contagiously joyful - she lights up the room with her happiness. When Hervey picks up the trumpet during the following song, folks in the audience are hyped and shouting "Woo" and "Yeah" before his solo is even over. It’s really infectious. The passive side is bopping. The "Bill" side is even starting to catch on. At any rate, the support act is qualified and fun. I’m so happy that Anthony decided to learn to play the trumpet because he is so good at it.

During the pause, the lines for the bar and the loo extend out the door of the church. Strategically, drinking is a bad idea as both queues are glacially slow. A few people appear to have obtained the elusive blood of christ, thanks be to the bar staff.

Beat Halberschmidt / Victor's Places
There is no bathroom backstage. This becomes apparent when the man of the hour is escorted through the crowd to use the one in the lobby – it's occupied. Everyone is playing it cool and just casually ignoring the awkward situation. Moments before the concert starts a conversation is overheard: “As these legendary musicians age, sure they lose their technical virtuosity but they gain… something else.”
Maybe it's patience. From time to time as he’s playing, a small smile escapes Bill’s lips. He’s famously gentle and introverted, yet confident and sure of his aural statement. Inquisitive picking and delay-pedal combos make for some satisfyingly obtuse harmonies. It starts out as mysterious, tending towards becoming a little repetitive, but soon enough we are blessed with some slightly prettier delayed loops to balance things out. A beer bottle rolls past in amateur accompaniment.

Bill seems totally elated and humbled by all the attention. During his only stage banter for the night, he can’t help but comment on the warm adoration and vast sea of fans, of which he is right in the middle: ”It’s like the Beatles or something!”

There is no doubting Frisell’s ability to write a tune, and indeed to play, still. You just have to be willing to come along on his journey, which is conducted at his pace. For some, that pace might be a little slow, but for the guy next to me, this was probably the best night of 2024. Maybe even his whole life. Not a song went by without an audible gasp, or an exclamation of joyous disbelief, both in German and English. Some people did appear to start yawning, others swayed with closed eyes. Sometimes Frisell just gets absorbed into his little world and it just loops around; mesmerising and hypnotic. It’s a mood.

People are getting tired of standing so they begin casually sitting down. The space and the music allows for it though, and it’s not particularly awkward. Rudy Royston’s drum solo brings the house down - a testament to just how restrained he has been this whole time. Actually, Rudy often steals the show, ever so subtly.

Beat Halberschmidt / Victor's Places
A good Frisell song feels like coming home to a familiar embrace with someone who has missed you very much. They've been wondering how you are, and can't wait to hear all your stories. One can't help but be moved by a slightly overdriven, lead-break over a seemingly familiar main melody. But it’s never too long before the dissonance returns, as Bill doesn't seem to want to let anyone get too emotionally attached all at once. He still has more than a few secrets and surprises left.

Bill’s classic version of the theme from On Her Majesty's Secret Service closes out the evening and some audience members appear to be having a religious experience. It’s an effortless encore and Bill returns to the stage, genuinely overjoyed at the thunderous ovation. Berlin absolutely loves him, and seeing his humble delight was nothing short of heartwarming. He deserves the spotlight, and all the accolades. Sure, at 73, he’s in his autumn years, but Bill is all set - a beautiful church performance like this guarantees his entry to the Pearly Gates. Long may his entry be delayed.

Bill Frisell, guitar
Thomas Morgan, bass
Rudy Royston, drums

Anthony Hervey, trumpet
Johannes Von Ballestrem, piano
Nick Dunston, bass
Ugo Alunni, drums
Natalie Greffel, vocals


Anonymous said...

Great review—feel like I was right there!

Anonymous said...

She hated it - and she hates the people who attended the show. What‘s wrong with getting old? What about the music? Worst review in a long time …

Pierre Boulez said...

Pire commentaire depuis longtemps. I can assure you she hates dead people more than the (still) living ... especially composers. Puitan!

Anonymous said...

Not sure where that reading comes from ... atmospheric description, apt assessment of Frisell's gentle music, it is a mood.