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Guitar Lessons

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Rick Rizzo,

Elliot Sharp,

Lee Ranaldo

Double Door, July 15

Since the advent of rock 'n' roll, the electric guitar has dominated the musical landscape above all other instruments. But hegemony can be followed by stasis and decay, and there's no denying that electric guitars are now used to make a lot of cliched music. Guitar-based grunge, punk, and speed-metal styles can sound staid and conservative compared to music made with samplers and other electronic instruments that push sonic boundaries. Sometimes it makes you wonder if the electric guitar has anything left to say.

The Chicago-based Atavistic label has recently issued a broad array of archival and new music, ranging from Glenn Branca's symphonies to songs by rock bands like Eleventh Dream Day and the Wolverton Brothers. The one thing that ties all of Atavistic's releases together is that they feature electric guitars played in extreme or unusually expressive ways. At a recent concert called Five With Six, five guitarists with the label played solo material, the best among them demonstrating creative new ways to use their instrument.

As the leader of Eleventh Dream Day, Rick Rizzo usually plays brooding, emotional rock music punctuated by fuzzy guitar solos reminiscent of Neil Young, Tom Verlaine, and Lou Reed at their most passionate. The six pieces he played at Five With Six--his solo debut--reaffirmed his commitment to traditional song forms, but also found him employing a few new tricks. He opened with an instrumental, playing throaty single-note lines over a synthesized rhythm reminiscent of beating helicopter blades. Soon he wasn't just playing the guitar's strings; he tossed the instrument about, the force and angle of each motion wringing a different shriek of protest from his amplifier. But each foray inevitably returned to the same melodic motif. His airborne technique isn't new; guitarists since Jimi Hendrix have employed amplifier abuse. But in (and out of) Rizzo's hands it was cathartic, venting a raw, affective intensity that he never achieved in the more reserved vocal performances that ensued.

Elliott Sharp explored the outer limits of guitar technique. He began "Histogram" by tapping out rapid-fire rhythms on both necks of his double-necked hybrid of bass and guitar. The shaven-headed Sharp cut a striking figure. He hunched over his instrument, mouthing the sounds his fingers pulled from the strings, and his face revealed a frightful array of grimaces. He jammed various objects, including wire and springs, between the strings to modify his guitar's sound. He also lunged incessantly at one or another of the nine pedals and effects boxes on the floor.

But Sharp's act was more than a visual spectacle. Each device and effect he used wrought a new and unexpected sound from his guitar. The sound changed from brittle metallic reports to sustained shrill tones to earthy twangs and slurs. He applied complex harmonies to blues-derived sonorities that would shift into howls not unlike the roar of a passing train. As he added effects, the sounds issuing from his amplifier seemed increasingly unrelated to his fingers' movements. And while the display was impressive, it wasn't self-indulgent. "Histogram" unfolded with an inevitable inner logic that made appropriate use of the myriad sounds at Sharp's command.

Lee Ranaldo closed the evening with a performance that was less visually spectacular than Sharp's but equally as impressive. A member of Sonic Youth, Ranaldo came straight to the club from that band's appearance at Lollapalooza. With Sonic Youth he's pioneered the use of unusual tunings and techniques (their 1986 show at Metro was the first time I ever saw someone play guitar with a screwdriver and a drumstick). But Ranaldo's solo recordings have little to do with rock. The piece he played at the Double Door was more like a symphony than a solo; Ranaldo manipulated masses of sound rather than notes and chords. He started with a low hum obtained by moving a slide from side to side on the guitar's neck, topping it off with a slow succession of cloudy swells as he gently tapped the guitar neck or adjusted his digital delay box. Ranaldo was an unassuming figure onstage, backlit by dim blue light, but the minimal staging directed attention to his music. He played a battered, gutted Fender Jaguar that looked like it had been rescued from a garbage can, but the sounds he coaxed from it weren't at all shabby. They ranged from lush to harsh, at one point sounding like airplanes roaring overhead, but they were rarely conventionally guitarlike. When he did play a quiet, melodic passage without any effects, the familiar sound was fresh and startling. Ranaldo's approach was much more impressionistic than Sharp's, but they both offered evidence that there's life left in electric guitars.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.

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