I’m glad I don’t play guitar. After seeing Marc Ribot basically invent a new language using his, I’d likely be shaking my head and tossing mine into the nearest dumpster. Ribot has been a stranger to Boston for a while now; the last show I saw was at the ICA a decade ago but he did do a show at The Brattle in 2016 that I missed. Luckily, Portsmouth isn’t too far away and an hour later I was inside the cozy confines of the Press Room.
Ribot first carved out his particular niche as a session man, most notably with his work on some mid-era Tom Waits records and also a multi-album stint with Elvis Costello but for me he’ll always be most closely associated with John Zorn. Ribot’s work with Zorn has mainly focused on being one of the intensely talented tentacles of the Electric Masada octet, an ensemble whose fearless reach and absolute joy of celebrating music is legendary; any music fan really owes it themselves to see them play at least once. He’s also done a substantial body of work with the Masada songbook outside the band, and his work on some of the Filmworks series of releases is breathtakingly beautiful.
Ribot strode down the stairs from the balcony and made his way through the seated crowd to take the stage; wearing a grey beanie and holding a weathered acoustic Gibson guitar, he got right into playing. His technique was dazzling; he is not the most precise player but that’s not the point. All finger-picked and providing some incredibly fast runs with both hands, Ribot ventured all over the guitar; occasionally percussively slapping the body, plucking strings above the nut on the head stock and rubbing the strings over the sound hole. He did sing vocals on one song and on others occasionally lent a vocal drone or breathing noises a la Glenn Gould.
After about thirty minutes of playing, he brought his head forward from its downward position and told the crowd that he’s been pretty bad about telling us song titles. Recounting the last song as “Dance Of The Hounsies” he mentioned that mentor Frantz Casséus would have been disappointed with the fact that not only did Ribot use a steel-stringed guitar but that he added in some improvisation as well. It’s my favorite of Marc’s solo records and thankfully it finally got a vinyl release last year; you can grab a copy via his bandcamp page.
Ribot’s work is also hugely informed and inspired by the free jazz legend Albert Ayler and Ribot released a record of Ayler covers some years back. He didn’t play anything off that one to my knowledge but did play “Ghosts” from an earlier record. A bit of Louis Armstrong also made its way into the mosaic that Ribot was busy weaving, taking strands of blues, jazz and folk from America and fusing it into a uniquely personal way. One image I couldn’t get out of my head was the jaunty, confident way he’d play; it reminded me of that thoroughly NYC movie scene in Midnight Cowboy where Dustin Hoffman yells out “I’m walking here!” Marc, feel free to leave New York City more often.