Last night was Fender's 50th Anniversary Jazzmaster event at Knitting Factory in NYC, featuring Tom Verlaine with Jimmy Ripp, Thurston Moore with Lee Ranaldo, Nels Cline, and J. Mascis with "special guests" Edison Glass and Norton Wisdom. Somebody at Fender these days is clearly a Jazzmaster fan. A big a turnaround from 15-20 years ago, when they were trying to pretend these guitars never existed.
The exciting stuff first: those two guitars up there on the left? Those are prototype Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore signature Jazzmasters.
I didn't get to talk to the Fender guy so I don't know if these are going into production, but they were there along with the rest of Fender's current US lineup, which also included the J. Mascis signature model, the Elvis Costello signature model, the Classic Player Jazzmaster and the American Vintage Reissue Jazzmaster (not pictured, off to the right).
The Lee Ranaldo model is a Jazzblaster with wide-range humbucking pickups and simplified electronics - no tone control or rhythm circuit. (I think this would be the first Jazzblaster Fender has ever produced, if they do produce it.) The Thurston Moore model's got traditional pickups but the same simplified electronics. And check out those funky finishes and colors. I honestly don't even know the rationale for those colors - I've never seen Thurston Moore wield a stained green Jazzmaster in my life. (Update: he apparently has in shows over the past year or so.)
The show was sold out, and it was great. As you'd expect from a Jazzmaster concert, the focus was not on who could play fastest or who had the most "chops", it was fully on creativity. And these guys are all legends for inventing sounds and techniques that nobody had ever heard before.
I gotta say I had to leave a little early - the schedule was pretty grueling and we just couldn't stay for J. Mascis. The dude wasn't even scheduled to go on until 12:30AM! But we did see everybody else.
The Knitting Factory is a cool venue because the main hall is really small.
I gotta give some props to Edison Glass, because I doubt anybody else is going to. They were the one new band of the night - everybody else was a big, well-established artist. But they were good, melodic indie rock, and they played well. We were so close and they were so loud that I thought I was gonna blow out my ear drums, but I survived it. They played a mix of American Vintage and Classic Player Jazzmasters and Jags - first time I've seen the Mexican offsets on stage. The dude on the left had some trouble with his Mexican Jazzmaster (he played one later in the show) - the bridge pickup cut out about 10 seconds into his first song with it.
Tom Verlaine with Jimmy Ripp
Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Ripp were up next, and they set the tone for most of the evening. The only featured artist who played with an actual band was J. Mascis (so I've heard); everybody else played sans rhythm section and chose to make a sonic landscape. I thought it was great, because I've never really been to a show like that. Verlaine and Ripp played a pretty ethereal set - half an hour continuous, alternately soaring and settling back, which I guess is the style they're known for. Verlaine played "lead", without much in the way of obvious effects, whereas Ripp had all sorts of delay and reverse reverb going on.
Both of them played amazing guitars, one of which I found out later was supposed to be given away in a drawing but wasn't. Grr! Verlaine had a black Jazzmaster with a gold pickguard and all black plastic parts. Ripp had the giveaway guitar - a sunburst JM with gold pickguard and black pickups. Both looked like custom shop guitars, probably given or lent to them for the evening.
Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo
The first thing Lee Ranaldo did when he sat down was whip out his iPhone. For a couple of minutes, a lot of people actually thought he was tuning his guitar with his iPhone! He was actually playing some sort of recording through his guitar pickups. He and Thurston put on a noisy set, though it wasn't all as noisy as the video above. Parts of it were fairly quiet, and like Verlaine and Ripp's set, it rose and fell in intensity several times. But Thurston did go nuts a couple of times. Moore and Ranaldo showed us all why they're the masters of feedback. It's not simple noise they're making, it can actually be pretty musical, the sounds they get out of their amps (when that's what they're going for). And it's really interesting to watch.
Not everybody gets this kind of thing. First of all, you did kinda need to be there. Second of all, you do have to sort of open your mind up as to what "music" really is. I wish I had a video of some of the quieter, more melodic parts of this performance, though - some of their sounds gave me chills. (And I swear, they came damn close to finding the mythical "brown note" a couple of times.)
Both Thurston and Lee played their own guitars. Unfortunately, something in Thurston's setup broke about 20 minutes in and he had to quit. The sound just cut out. He was obviously pissed, flinging the cord out of his guitar and banging the top of his amp. I thought for a second that he was going to smash his guitar or throw it off the stage or something, but he's not stupid. He was visibly angry, though. But he gave a little smile and shrug to the crowd before leaving, so he wasn't like one of those asshole rock stars who project their anger onto the audience when stuff goes wrong.
Nels Cline with Norton Wisdom
This was actually pretty transcendent. Nels Cline went on a little early because of Thurston's mishap, and we actually missed the very beginning of his set - we were still hanging out outside waiting for his scheduled time when I heard what I thought was music. I really regret that now, because I wanted his set to go on a lot longer.
Nels performed with artist Norton Wisdom, apparently not for the first time, but I've never seen anything like this. Norton Wisdom is an amazing painter, at least in terms of his process, and he made at least three distinct paintings on the same canvas as we watched. There is something completely hypnotic about watching him paint - it's almost like watching animation. He takes a completed painting, erases part of it, paints new stuff on top of other stuff and all of a sudden, it's something completely different. Then he does the same thing again.
As he painted, Nels played along with what he was seeing, improvising based on the mood of Wisdom's piece. It was really beautiful, a soundtrack to the process of painting. Some of his set was beyond any sound you'd expect to come out of a guitar, even employing a voice box of some kind that he'd use to scream into his pickups every once in a while. He did have a technical hiccup near the start of his set that basically killed all the loops he'd created to that point, but it was forgotten just seconds later. Nels' set was the highlight of the show for me.
Nels supposedly played his own guitar like Thurston and Lee, but I didn't see it - since he was watching the painting, he more or less had his back to us the whole time.
Unfortunately, that was our night! If you want to hear about J. Mascis' set, you'll have to find another report elsewhere. I did get to stand next to him for a while outside the bathrooms, if that counts for anything.
I was hoping they'd had some cool merchandise for sale at the show, but all they really had was a bunch of Edison Glass stuff (and I wasn't really prepared yet to actually shell out money for them), then some posters and prints of this image that Fender had made up. It was raining, though, so I didn't really want to deal with taking one home. We did snag a couple of picks out of the pick jar, but I don't think there's anything special about them.
It was a great night and a lot of music for just 20 bucks. And it really just goes to show how amazing any guitar can be in a creative person's hands. It would have been nice if they could have found a female Jazzmaster player or two, but I honestly can't think of many myself.