Getting the Willies

From the moment Bill Frisell walks on stage, it's clear that he's of a mind that has multiple things ambling through it, and he carefully selects exactly which of those things he'll say. It's the same modus operandi behind his guitar playing, except with the guitar, he also has live sampling capability that allows him to scramble what's been played. So as he entered the homey Tractor Tavern stage last Wednesday night, it took Frisell several moments to acknowledge Eyvind Kang, with whom the guitarist has played most vauntedly on the Nonesuch Records CD Quartet and in the aptly named Bill Frisell Quartet.

Bill Frisell and the Willies

Tractor Tavern, Wednesday, June 9

Frisell, smiling—as he so frequently is when he's either talking (sparely) on stage or digging his and/or his group's playing—then remarked that he was grateful to be playing again with Kang, who's just come off a tour as a member of Beck's band. You could see the two get into a well-developed musical repartee, while the remaining Willies—bassist Keith Lowe and banjo dynamaestro Danny Barnes—plied their own unique roles in the group.

The show started off and remained almost meditative, with Frisell and Kang connecting on a textural level they've been exploring together off and on since Quartet. There was little of the rustic, middling-tempo moodiness of Frisell's phenomenal new CD Good Dog, Happy Man, but instead a rack of tunes framed by Frisell's sampler at the intro and outro, giving each piece an even greater sense of dynamic deliberation.

Barnes and Frisell as a duo, or with bassist Buell Neidlinger in the band Buellgrass, can be superb melodicists wearing their down-home hearts on their sleeves, but the Willies sound less willing to show their full hand. There were semi-extended free improvisational forays, which in the main occupied Frisell and Kang. In some spots, Barnes and Lowe seemed to be sharing a rhythmic role that resembled some weird weave of the low-end and the mid-register pluck.

There's been an unmistakable change in Frisell's musical direction since his 1995 bluegrass album Nashville. With the Willies, he steers the 'grassy elements around and through the atmospheric studies perfected in the Quartet. The outcome is oddly configured, but when played live, it works—even if in strange ways.

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