Guitarist Chris Forsyth and I have a mutual friend on Facebook. The friend recently posted this obscure quote from an old album review penned by critic Robert Christgau: “Contains the finest rock improvisation ever recorded.” Forsyth was the first commenter to name the album. “Duh,” he wrote. “Live/Dead. What else could it be?” A week later, Forsyth and I talk about Grateful Dead’s 1969 masterpiece.
“I like that record just fine,” he says. “But as far as the Dead goes, I got on the train late. In fact, I used to actively dislike them, and there was a huge amount of baggage I had to shed to get here. Now I appreciate them because they never treated their music as artifact, but always as a living thing they created on the spot. With that sort of creativity happening live, onstage, anything can happen.”
Forsyth’s new outfit, the Solar Motel Band, has the same goal. The Thursday-night residency he and his bandmates — guitarist Paul Sukeena (Spacin’), bassist Peter Kerlin and drummer Steve Urgo (ex-War on Drugs) — are doing for the entire month of June at Ortlieb’s Lounge is the perfect proving ground.
The residency began last week with two commanding sets of heavily improvised, all-instrumental rock music. Having seen Forsyth perform as a solo guitarist on numerous occasions, and also as the sole guitarist in his short-lived Paranoid Cat Band, the biggest surprise was hearing him play with another guitarist.
Like Forsyth’s previous work — his most recent solo release was last year’s Kenzo Deluxe — many of the new songs are centered on a simple, repeated, melodically hypnotic guitar phrase. In the past, that phrase would unravel sometimes, but with the Solar Motel Band, it always does. This band actively de-centers Forsyth’s original structures, but then Sukeena, on second guitar, provides a subtly shifting melodic pattern that ultimately gives Forsyth more freedom to freak out and, well, jam.
Forsyth would likely puke at this classification, but the Solar Motel is kind of a jam band. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
My first taste of Forsyth’s music was his weirdo psych/folk/noise trio Peeesseye. That band released about a dozen records, mostly on Forsyth’s Evolving Ear label, in the late ’00s. Each one sounded different, and the same contrarian spirit animated Peeesseye’s concerts — one night they’d make music suitable for a Zen garden, and the next night they’d stab you with sonic hate. It was loose and jammy, but nothing like the Grateful Dead; Peeesseye’s music was often beautiful, but the venomous beast had no tolerance for Deadhead hippie bullshit.
Over the last few years — beginning with his 2009 solo album, Dreams — Forsyth has gradually become more comfortable with the fact that, way down inside, he is a rock ’n’ roll guitarist. The aforementioned baggage he had to shed was, at least in part, the burden that comes with being an “experimental” musician. After watching him play with the Solar Motel Band, and hearing the new album the band plans to release in October, it’s apparent that this is where Forsyth belongs right now. But there’s no telling where the path will lead him.
“The Dead took chances,” says Forsyth. “Creativity just flowed out of them, and they let the music go to new places. What I really want is for the players in my band to express themselves, and to do their own thing. Most importantly, no matter what, we have to keep taking risks. That’s what I’ve always done.”
Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band play every Thursday in June, 9 p.m., $6, Ortlieb’s Lounge, 847 N. Third St., 267-324-3348, ortliebslounge.com.
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