Live: Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, Carolina Student Union, 3/22/09

Bill Frisell, a jazz-and-other-things guitarist, plays deceptively complicated music--on the surface, it sounds sonorous, melodic and pastoral, perhaps even facile. Seeing him live helps to dispel that, particularly in a small formats. His whole arsenal of tricks--from tritone subs to harmonics to bluegrass pyrotechnics were on display for his duo with pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz last night.

The duo teams Leisz, a crack session man with everyone from Beck to Wilco to Joni Mitchell, with Frisell, a player whose path has taken him from avant-garde jazz to bluegrass, blues and country. The two have been collaborating since 1999's Good Dog, Happy Man (probably my favorite all-time record), and they've got a remarkable chemistry. While Leisz remains stoic while he plays, save the occasional grin, the normally restrained Frisell clearly delights in the duo; his face alternated between broad grins of amusement at a phrase Leisz had played and childlike looks of curiousity as he  explored the sounds he could make with effects pedals or, in one case, a music box held to his guitar's pick-up.

Frisell, on electric guitar, and Leisz, on pedal and lap steel, bounced phrases off and around each other on 10 tunes. Both have an impeccable sense of rhythm and know the songs well, freeing either of playing an accompanying or rhythmic role; instead, phrases echoed interweaved until it was sometimes difficult to tell who was playing what--as on the tender but ebullient "Poem for Eva." Leisz is rare among sidemen and steel guitarists in having an immediately recognizable sound; but the two distinctive sounds seemed to fuse to create something peculiar to the two.

The exceptions to that fusion were just as pleasant. On bluegrass standard "Sugar Baby," Leisz maintained the basic motif of the song as Frisell exercised his jazz chops, playing bebop and post-bop phrases over a creepy modal feel, and occasionally substituing dozens of altered chords for the simple structure. Miraculously, it never sounded off-kilter or wonkish; just cool, for lack of a better word.

Perhaps the high point of the set--which was fantastic but characteristically subdued--was a rollicking, Bob Wills-flavored Western swing take on Benny Goodman's "Benny's Bugle," for the first encore, with Leisz contributing sharp steel riffs and Frisell channeling Charlie Christian. It capped off a tour of nearly every imagineable form of American music, and was a perfect benediction to the sell-out crowd before we floated off into the Southern spring night--many of us sporting the same broad grin Frisell had throughout the set.

For hardcore Frisellheads, here's a setlist. Any help in filling in the two gaps would be much appreciated.

  1. Keep Your Eyes Open>
  2. Monroe
  3. Throughout>
  4. Poem for Eva
  5. Sugar Baby
  6. I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry>
  7. (I didn't know this--an old pop standard perhaps?)
  8. Boubacar


  1. Benny's Bugle
  2. (some country standard I didn't know)

Previously: "Frisell suite captures Americana"


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