Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Les Paul at Iridium 

Cross one item off the "things to do before I die" list: I saw Les Paul play at Iridium Monday night.

These days, most rockers know Paul as the semi-inventor of the electric guitar as we know it, and the namesake of a famous model Gibson played by a ton of rock guitarists. But in addition to his technical achievements, which also include early experiments with multi-tracking as heard in the 1947 classic "Lover," Paul has been a master of traditional pop, jazz, blues, country, Hawaiian, and maybe a few other styles of guitar playing. He's also been a Mahwah resident for more than 50 years.

He overcame serious injuries decades ago, has managed to play through arthritis in his later years, and here he is at age 89, not only doing what he loves but doing it better than basically everyone else out there. It's really humbling. For more than 20 years, Les has had court at a weekly gig in Manhattan, doing two sets every Monday night. Last night, after many years of idly thinking every once in a while, "Hey, I really should go see Les Paul someday," I finally made it.

Backed unobtrusively by an electric rhythm guitarist, upright bassist, and pianist, Paul tapped his right foot on his stool over and over while tearing through standards like "Blue Skies," "Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered," "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby," and "The Lady Is A Tramp" with solos and fills I've simply never heard before. It's really like he's from another planet. He's that original.

The middle third or so of the show was like a Bizarro version of American Idol. The guests segment of the show featured young adults with varying talents—a tenor sax player, a violinist, and a tap dancer—plus a nine-year-old guitarist. Paul let each guest join the band for two songs, letting loose some hilarious comments while interviewing each of them about their craft before and after songs. Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde (who has a Gibson signature Les Paul guitar of his own) stopped by, but unfortunately he had left the club by the time Les called him up to sit in.

Paul and the band closed with a version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" that was so funky it might as well have been Sly & The Family Stone Unplugged. For a set that consisted mostly of music written six or more decades ago, the show took a lot of chances.

Les seems to enjoy attention and adoration, too; as is tradition, he came out after the set to sign autographs and pose for photos. Apparently, Monday was the first time he'd done this in a few weeks, as he'd been recovering from a recent fall. Rarely can I be bothered to wait in line for a meet and greetr, but this one was special; I had to wait. It ended up taking an hour, but at the front of the line, he couldn't have been more amiable in posing for pictures and signing "To Mike - Howdy - Les Paul" on my copy of his The Complete Decca Trios Plus (1936-47) double-CD.

I could complain about how cramped Iridium was, or how uncomfortable the backs of the chairs there are, or how Les' son was charging people $20 for an 11-track CD from Universal's mid-price 20th Century Masters series, but in the end it doesn't matter. Sometimes living legends disappoint. Rarely do they exceed expectations, but Les Paul did.

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