‘The heat goes on’

Music legend Adrian Belew brings Talking Heads’ 1980 classic ‘Remain in Light’ to Boulder with former band guitarist Jerry Harrison

Courtesy: Warner Music Group

Adrian Belew has been busy lately — but that’s nothing new for the 73-year-old music legend. Now 25 albums deep into a solo career, the former frontman of progressive British rock band King Crimson has also been taking stock of his past by revisiting a pair of key collaborations with some of rock’s biggest stars both on stage and in the studio.

This included Belew’s involvement last fall as a featured player and vocalist in the Celebrating David Bowie tour, featuring singer-songwriter Todd Rundgren, Spacehog frontman Royston Langdon and Angelo Moore of Fishbone. Joining the festivities made sense for Belew, considering he toured with Bowie on the 1978 Isolar II tour, played guitar on the icon’s 1979 album Lodger, and was musical director and guitarist on his epic Sound + Vision tour in 1990.

Now Belew, an omnivorous collaborator who began his career playing with Frank Zappa before going on to work with Paul Simon, Tori Amos, Cyndi Lauper and many others, begins what figures to be an even busier 2023 by teaming up with former Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison for a tour celebrating the beloved art-rock outfit’s seminal 1980 album, Remain in Light. The show finds Belew and Harrison fronting a huge band that will play the entirety of the breakthrough album, which fused the Talking Heads’ earlier and more streamlined art-school guitar rock with African music influences to create a fresh sound heavy on polyrhythms — complex, yet highly approachable. 

Once again, Belew had a direct connection to the Remain In Light project, having played guitar on the album and served as featured player in the expanded band the Talking Heads took on tour to promote it. However, recreating the classic record on stage 43 years later hasn’t been without its challenges for Belew and fellow bandleader Harrison.

“It’s a large band. It’s always hard to make that work out economically and otherwise,” Belew says. “But it sure is fun, and we sure get a great response. I love working with Jerry [Harrison] and the band, and I love doing that record in particular. We’re trying to sort of take as our blueprint the 1980 live Rome concert that’s on YouTube, that hundreds and hundreds of people say it’s the best concert they ever saw. We started with that, and we tried to emulate it a bit. It’s a show that if you really love [the Talking Heads], you can’t miss it. It’s a happy show, a joyful show.”

 But joy isn’t what springs to mind when Belew remembers the first time he saw the Talking Heads play a small club gig in 1977, just a couple years after the band’s formation.

 “They weren’t very good, honestly. It’s amazing how quickly they became really good,” he says. “And in my mind, I compare that show … to what we did only a few years later, three years later, and I think, ‘Wow, how quickly they transformed themselves.’ Brilliant stuff — great players and just completely different musical ideas.”  

Adrian Belew (left) and Jerry Harrison | Credit: Michael Weintrob

Belew says he began to understand how much and how quickly the Talking Heads — which also included singer and primary songwriter David Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth — had developed when he heard the band’s third album, 1979’s Fear of Music, which began to introduce an element of world music into its quirky punk rock framework. 

 “That was about the time I finally ended up playing with them,” Belew remembers. “Then I went back to the earlier [albums]. But still, Fear of Music was my favorite, until we did Remain In Light.”

 Like Bowie’s Lodger, the eccentric superstar producer and musician Brian Eno famously handled production duties on Remain in Light. When working together on the former album, Eno didn’t let Belew hear any of the songs before recording and didn’t even tell him what key they were in. Instead, Belew was tasked with playing whatever guitar parts and solos occurred to him the first time he heard the music.

 “That’s exactly what happened with the next thing, which was the Remain in Light record with the Talking Heads, the same exact thing, only [he] didn’t say you can’t hear the songs. There weren’t any songs. There were just tracks and one key: ‘We’re going to build the songs around stuff, so place something and we’ll build it around you,’” Belew says. “That’s how [the song] ‘The Great Curve’ was: ‘Go out in the studio, and when you think it’s time to put a solo in, go ahead and put it in.’ And then they would write the song around it later.”

While the Remain in Light tour is an opportunity to look back on one chapter of a storied career, Belew is also focused on the future. His 2022 album Elevator, which he plans to support with a tour after the upcoming shows with Harrison, finds the musician synthesizing his decades of solo and collaborative work to create something wholly new. But whatever musical terrain may remain to be explored by the accomplished artist, he says it all comes back to a core creative inspiration that took root at an early age.

 “I can’t really get away from the main influence that I had when I was starting out, and of course that’s the Beatles, but in particular the Revolver record, which was when the Beatles introduced all kinds of outside elements into their songwriting and their pop music,” he says. “You had Indian instruments and backwards tapes and all manner of things going on. I’m always trying to find that perfect blend of that avant-garde approach with the pop songwriting approach. That’s kind of what I’ve settled into doing. It’s a tightrope.” 

ON THE BILL: Remain in Light with Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew. 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. $43 | Friday, Feb. 17, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St. Tickets here.

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