Over The Weekend: Marc Ribot at the Kessler Theatre

Marc Ribot
Kessler Theater
September 25, 2010

Better than: Being challenged by musical banality.

The Kessler Theater presented its first "Storytellers at the Kessler" event on Saturday night, hosting Marc Ribot in his first-ever Texas performance. And the combination of music and space could not have been better suited for each other. 

Ribot is a musician for whom the description "guitarist's guitarist" is genuinely appropriate. 

Most people familiar with Ribot know him for his work with some of the great songwriters of the past 20 years. That impressive roster includes Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and numerous albums produced by T-Bone Burnett--including the Allison Krauss and Robert Plant megahit Raising Sand. Ribot has also worked on a number of film scores, including The Departed. And while this body work is brilliant, and certainly helps pay the bills, it seems fair to say that Ribot's first love is avant-garde jazz.

In this evening, which was divided into two musical segments, Ribot provided an appreciative audience with a dazzling performance that displayed his many musical talents and interests.

The theater had been configured with comfortable seating, creating a very intimate and hushed setting, particularly by Dallas standards. Perhaps the most puzzling part of the stage setting was a cluster of balloons taped to the floor in front of the performer's chair. The audience of perhaps 150 was similarly visually interesting, representing a cross-section of people, some dressed as if for an event at the Opera House, and others in jeans and tees.

Ribot took the stage around 9 p.m., himself wearing jeans and a T-shirt under a leather jacket, and equipped with a well-worn '36 Gibson acoustic guitar.  

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After a brief greeting, Ribot launched into a set of blistering performance of jazz compositions by Coltrane and Albert Ayler. He demonstrated amazing dexterity as he switched between using a pick and finger picking (stashing the pick in his mouth for those segments), and wringing other sounds from his instrument by rubbing his moistened finger on the guitar's soundboard.

He started to prepare for an between-set interview with the Observer's Robert Wilonsky when he spotted the balloons still taped to the floor, which prompted Ribot to take out his slide an perform the short piece Book of Heads by his fellow "downtowner" jazz musician and friend John Zorn, with the noisy passages punctuated by stomping on the balloons.

During the interview with Wilonsky, Ribot discussed the challenge of writing a film score. As he noted, a truly effective score is actually not perceptively heard or remembered by the viewer. Ribot then went on to explain how he had come to develop a score for Chaplin's The Kid, which he was commissioned to score for the New York Guitar Festival and was performing for only the third time in public for the Kessler audience.

The theater was then darkened, Ribot moved off to the side of the stage, and Chaplin's The Kid rolled.  And for the next hour Ribot largely improvised a soundtrack that underscored the melancholy, humor, and drama the great silent movie.

It was a profound and profoundly challenging evening of music, and established a new high water mark for a live music venue in Dallas.  Keep your eyes opened for future "Storyteller" events at this theater

Critics notebook 
Personal Bias:
One of my favorite recorded performances ever is "Hoist That Rag" on Tom Wait's 2004 album Real Gone. Ribot brings a Latin structure to the song, and talking with Ribot before last night's show about how he had to sell Waits on the structure (which is evident in the shambolic time keeping by Waits maracas) was a real treat. 

Random note: I think this was the first time I had ever watched The Kid in its entirety.  What an astonishing film and performance by Chaplin and the young Jackie Coogan.

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