Adrian Belew proved that classic rock can be infused with urgency and that guitar heroics needn’t be tiresome at Knuckleheads on Thursday.
While the two 50-minute sets of vintage material he played with bassist Julie Slick and drummer Tobias Ralph were permeated with long solos, complex time signatures and intentional dissonance, only occasionally did the performance seem overblown.
Intellectual curiosity, rather than arrogant swagger, informs Belew’s approach. Since receiving his first big break from Frank Zappa in the 1970s, the Kentucky native has contributed to massive hits and cult classics.
The opening salvo of Paul Simon’s 1986 song “You Can Call Me Al” that sounds like a horn section, for instance, was created by Belew on a guitar synthesizer.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Belew focused on more esoteric fare from his remarkable career on Thursday. A rendition of David Bowie’s groundbreaking 1979 single “Boys Keep Swinging” included an impressive reproduction of Belew’s discordant guitar statement on the avant-garde disco track. He also sang Bowie’s lines from his 1990 duet with the late star on “Pretty Pink Rose.”
The set list didn’t include any selections from Belew’s collaborations with Talking Heads, but the similarly Afrobeat-inflected song “Thela Hun Ginjeet” was deliriously funky. The composition was one of several songs from Belew’s stint in the prog-rock band King Crimson.
Belew faithfully re-created the staccato guitar line of “Three of a Perfect Pair,” a complex song true to the group’s tradition of ostentatiousness.
The crisp edginess that Belew contributed to King Crimson was better exhibited on a succinct interpretation of “Elephant Talk” that was more punk than pomp. The pretty and relatively conventional songs “Walking on Air” and “One Time” provided respites from the sonic experimentation that dominated the show.
Smiling widely, Belew repeatedly swung his guitar like the baton of an orchestra conductor in attempts to goad Slick and Ralph into making false starts. They managed to avoid getting fooled by their prank-loving bandleader.
Slick — one of about three dozen women in the room who were outnumbered by about 200 men — was particularly impressive. The insistent rumble she added to “Big Electric Cat” sounded like a refreshing spring thunderstorm.
“I’m a dinosaur, somebody’s digging my bones,” Belew sighed during the sinewy 1995 King Crimson song “Dinosaur.” He may be a relic of a seemingly ancient era, but Thursday’s lively musical excavation proved that Belew is hardly a dusty fossil.