Tom Verlaine's Old Television Signals Are Now Pure Satellite

By Natalie Nichols
Special to The Times

June 19, 2006

In the hands of Tom Verlaine, a simple Fender guitar can propel a nightclub through time and space. At least, that's how it felt during his Friday performance at the Roxy, as the punk icon and his band spun out expansive, intricate songs with a psychedelic intensity seemingly powerful enough to send the room to Saturn.

Wearing a red T-shirt and a black hoodie, the pale, lanky co-founder of pioneering '70s punk band Television even looked slightly alien as he traded pretty-to-noisy riffs with guitarist Jimmy Rip, building sonic castles by turns delicate, mysterious and foreboding. Verlaine's sinuous, transporting solos progressed fluidly from jazz to funk to surf to rock sometimes in the span of one tune.

Stark and jazzy, lush and bluesy, abstract and earthy, the 90-minute set offered selections from his current albums, "Songs and Other Things" and the instrumental collection "Around," as well as earlier works. As he conducted this visceral head trip, Verlaine quietly absorbed the half-capacity crowd's adulation and calmly handled technical difficulties. "We played here, like, 20 years ago," the passionate gearhead joked as the players worked out a sound kink, "and the buzz is still here."

In the 14 years since his previous solo album, the singer-songwriter's kept busy with various projects, including Television reunions and playing guitar in Patti Smith's band. So it's no surprise that his playing, always revered and long emulated by countless admirers, has been honed to a breathtaking sharpness that was technically impressive and purely delightful.

The music was not unlike Television in its broad range and tendency to unfold into seemingly infinite dimensions, which had earned the New York City group the dubious honor of being dubbed the Grateful Dead of punk. Verlaine's band included Television bassist and longtime collaborator Fred Smith, whose nimble rhythms meshed with the thunderous yet agile beats of drummer Louie Appel to anchor even the guitarists' most out-there experimentation.

Verlaine's dry, near deadpan vocals delivered poetic lyrics that could be strangely poignant, such as the emotionally stunted correspondence of 1987's "The Scientist Writes a Letter." Other observations were weirdly profound, as in the new "The Earth Is in the Sky," which spread into a vast jam framed by a loping reggae beat. The shambling New Orleans funk of "Shingaling" provided a fleeting link to the outside world, reminding us that the besieged Crescent City's eternal sounds are present in even the unlikeliest pop places, but mostly Verlaine gave us an absorbing view of his inner space.

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