Chicago Tribune, September 3, 1989

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Blair's beat

Ex-Chicagoan has his own way of playing the standards

Michael Nejman

When Elvis Costello takes the stage Sunday at Alpine Valley, right behind him will be former Chicagoan, Michael Blair.

Blair recently was featured in Musician and Modern Drummer magazines for his percussion skills which are non-traditional if not eccentric. So while Costello sings and strums his guitar, don't be surprised when Blair starts banging on '62 Olds 88 hubcap ("Enough dogs had chased it so it has its own little charm"), whacking a Chinese opera gong to make it yelp like "Martian-dog bark," or playing "whiplash and anvil."

This drumming without boundaries approach is all part of Blair's philosophy of music.

"I don't believe in forcing a song to fit a certain structure," he explained. "I like to bring something new to what a song can be. I like the process of decomposition."

Decomposition?

"In a way, it's a euphemism for unbridled improvisation," Blair said. "For instance you take a basic song that sounds like lot of other songs, and maybe you start switching sections around. You start playing parts backward and forward, and you experiment with non-traditional instrumentation.

It's an exciting approach to music that Blair has endorsed since his school days at the University of Illinois in Champaign, where he enrolled in the master's program in percussion performance.

I could go from playing in the opera to doing an avant-garde chamber concert to playing in modern-dance concert to conducting the percussion ensemble to playing in rock band at fraternity -- and I wanted to do all of that," Blair said.

He was plucked from Champaign to tour with the Paul Winter Consort in the spring of '77 for about year. Then it was on to New York to teach master's classes in percussion, play the club scene and, like most struggling artists, work for a catering company.

"I would cut my hair, get in my tuxedo and serve important people," he said. "The coolest thing I did was work as the bartender for Madonna's bridal shower."

In 1985, Tom Waits discovered Blair's talent for making strange noises and called him to work on the Rain Dogs album.

Then he brought Blair to Chicago in the spring of '86 to work with him on Frank's Wild Years, a play produced in cooperation with the Steppenwolf Theatre and directed by Gary Sinise. Between working on the theatrical production and later recording an album of the same name in Chicago's Universal Studios, Blair lived in the Rogers Park area.

"After nine years of living in Manhattan," he said, "it was refreshing to have a friendlier, quieter and safer setting to live in."

But as his career began to bloom and commuting to Los Angeles and New York became a constant necessity, Blair re returned to New York 18 months later.

Although he couldn't live in the city of his choice, he began to play with the artists he admired.

"I always like the way Elvis [Costello] wrote," he said. "Elvis is a big Waits fan, so during our European tour in '85, Elvis came to London and Paris to see the show, hang out and be sociable."

It was at the last show of the Waits tour, in Los Angeles, when Costello and producer T- Bone Burnett approached Blair to play the marimba on "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" on the King of America album. Blair played on the songs and then returned to work with Waits on Frank's Wild Years.

Several months later Costello came to Chicago when he accompanied his wife Cait O'Riordan during her tour with the Pogues. Inevitably they all went to see Waits in Frank's Wild Years.

"Tom, Elvis, the Pogues, everyone ended up at Holstein's on Lincoln Avenue that night," Blair said. "Elvis and Tom performed together and then we all got rip-roaring drunk and watched the sun rise."

Shortly after that night, Costello asked Blair to tour with his band, the Confederates, during 1986. He then solicited Blair to work on Spike, the critically acclaimed album Costello released earlier this year.

Costello "wanted me to work on Spike right from the beginning; to work on the arrangements and become part of the core group, to which other people would be added," Blair said. "Actually, Elvis, T-Bone and I made up that core."

Blair also has recently been involved in several other albums, many of which will be released in the next few months, including projects by Ireland's Gavin Friday and poet Allen Ginsberg.

But Blair ultimately wants to release his own record.

Producer "Hal Willner and I have already started to plan a record," Blair said. "It'll be my own version of deconstructing pop songs."

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Chicago Tribune, September 3, 1989


Michael Nejman profiles Michael Blair ahead of his appearance with Elvis Costello and The Rude 5 Sunday, September 3, 1989, Alpine Valley Music Theatre, East Troy, WI.

Images

1989-09-03 Chicago Tribune page 5-03 clipping 01.jpg
Clipping.

1989-09-03 Chicago Tribune page 5-03.jpg
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