Interstellar Overdrive

Nels Cline's Great Balls Of Fire

If he only did one thing, you could call it jazz. But Nels Cline the heroic solo guitar reinvigorator is as comfortable with Coltrane as he is with Tweedy and Thurston and Watt and Lunch and Brion and Bozulich and the rest of his discography is still out in the freight elevator so at press time I cannot comment. He is some of Sonny Sharrock as much as he is some of Sonic Youth—Cline babies a '59 Jazzmaster in part because he wanted that Thurston tonality in his life, he says—and now some of Spongebob Squarepants, too, whose movie gave Nels Cline his first recording session as a new member of Wilco.

That song was "Just A Kid" and Cline played an electric 12-string and it sounded kind of like the Replacements' "Favorite Thing," except with a tiny bit of the Byrds in the high register. This is what we call versatility—Sharrock didn't bead a sweat playing guitar on Herbie Mann's "Memphis Underground" (though if you look at the back cover you can see Herbie himself glowing like a racehorse), but Sharrock also led the credits for the unreal Monkey Pockie Boo, an Actuel free suite with the intensity of a breech birth. Some of his songs were from Saturn and some were just from a comfy recording studio.

And Nels Cline can do that—Saturn plus Venus and Mars and more as a revisitation of Coltrane's Interstellar Space (with drummer Gregg Bendian) as "Interstellar Overdrive." Cline goes so free on guitar he's about hovering, and then later on he would help Wilco cover 40 seconds of a Peter Laughner cle-punk ballad—versatility.

Before Hendrix and the Byrds came the cut-out cash-in surf music comps Cline remembers buying at the drug store based on which covers looked the coolest. Not Dick Dale but a second-string band covering Dick Dale: "I didn't know what records to get at that point!" he says. People were giving him records anyway—the two sitter girls down the street (who used to keep an eye on the brothers Cline before the parents got home) got bored with a little book of 45s and passed them on to young Nels and brother Alex, and that was "Bony Maroni" and "Great Balls Of Fire" and "Tequila," which established itself as an early favorite. Even then, says Cline, we liked instrumentals. He graduated elementary school with his brother playing a set of all-originals: Homogenized Goo! Sounds pretty good, I say. Until you heard it, he laughs.

That one is good-natured modesty—surely the Cline bros. copying the Champs at about age 11 would have been the last best avant event of prepubescence—and that good nature gets Cline to a lot of good places; any time his name came up during preparations for this article, it tumbled loose someone's story about something good about Nels Cline—assurances of love and admiration and minds blown, which is a phrase I use only because it's the phrase that people use. They shake hands and they say, "Man, you blew my mind," says Cline, good-natured and modest because it's not the kind of thing it pays to ponder: "It can be a little paralyzing," he says, "to think too much about what other people think about what you do."

Luckily that means Nels Cline probably won't read this so he won't have to be good-naturedly embarrassed at being called one of the most fearless and versatile guitar players playing—even Guitar Player magazine is in on the mind-blowning, running Cline's well-weathered guitar across their masthead as antidote to the precison philosophy poison they make famous.

It's been a long process, Cline says. He's not like a lot of guys who'll say they never took a lesson—he took a few lessons, but always from bad teachers, he admits, and luckily they never stuck around long anyway, thus, he says, sparing him further damage. He even played with just two fingers for a while, though now he is up to at least 12 or 16—sometimes he goes too fast to count, or uses one of those phalange-multiplying effects pedals they sometimes make. At this show he will be performing with a painter, with a wet brush that slaps clear canvas—a different kind of instrumental jazz duo. Other people have learned all the rules, but they don't chase anything creative: they're better musicians by a million miles but, says Cline, "I'm a primitive, baby!"

NELS CLINE WITH NORTON WISDOM AS STAINED RADIANCE PLUS LISTENING WITH DAVID HARRINGTON OF THE KRONOS QUARTET AT THE GRAND CENTRAL ART CENTER, 125 N. BROADWAY, SANTA ANA, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. SAT., 7 PM. FREE. ALL AGES.

 
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