Improvisations of a Guitar Perfectionist

New York Times June 17 1996

by Neil Strauss

On Wednesday night at Tramps, Tom Verlaine, the elusive guitar virtuoso who led the underground band Television in the 70's, performed his first solo concert in eight years. And Mr. Verlaine didn't make any concessions to nostalgic fans, including four new pieces and several obscure ones in a nearly two-and-one-half-hour set. Even when he threw the audience a bone by closing his show with "Marquee Moon," one of Television's crowning achievements, he turned it into an unfamiliar piece by extending it with nearly 15 minutes of sinuous improvisation and extra false endings.

Joined by his longtime collaborators, Jimmy Ripp on guitar, Jay Dee Daugherty on drums and, during the encore, Television's Fred Smith on bass (Tony Shanahan played bass the rest of the show), Mr. Verlaine alternated between dreamlike poetry delivered in a smooth tenor, driving rock topped by his pinched warble and evocative instrumentals. Without sounding dated, Mr. Verlaine managed to evoke the CBGB milieu of streetwise rock poets like Lou Reed and Patti Smith (in whose band he is to perform at Irving Plaza on Friday and Saturday) from which he arose.

As a guitarist, Mr. Verlaine offered a maximum of proficiency with a minimum of frills, playing firm, precise and melodic lines rounded out with a touch of reverberation. Occasionally, he choked up on the guitar neck to coax new sounds from the instrument, but mostly he saved the more flashy bits for Mr. Ripp.

All that mired the show was Mr. Verlaine's perfectionism and the band's inadequate rehearsal time. There were lengthy pauses between almost every song so that he and Mr. Ripp could retune, fiddle with effects or change guitars. And Mr. Verlaine rearranged several songs midway through performing them, stopping "Pillow" to ask Mr. Daugherty to switch from brushes to drumsticks and interrupting "Bells" to retune Mr. Ripp's guitar.