When it comes time to counting off the great guitar heroes of the rock era, list-making musical pundits almost always undervalue Tom Verlaine. That’s more than a bit baffling, given the eye-opening playing he contributed to the first-wave punk supernova Television, but not all that surprising, given his longstanding distaste for the spotlight.
Verlaine, who has busied himself with side projects in recent years — most recently playing in a reconstituted Patti Smith Group — is putting that ambivalence on hold to promote two albums simultaneously released on the Chicago-based Thrill Jockey label. One, “Around,” is given over to meditative instrumentals geared more toward cathedrals than concert halls, while the second, “Songs and Other Things,” revisits the heady angularity that marked both Television albums and his earlier solo work.
Wisely, the guitarist concentrated on the latter disc at this no-frills perf, delivering a set that showcased his ability to set off on improbable improvisational tangents, then return to song structure without missing a beat. Those travels were made a good deal easier by rhythm guitarist Jimmy Ripp, a longtime Verlaine collaborator who — like a fullback on the football field — was clearly aware that he wasn’t there to flash showy moves but to further the effort by pushing along relentlessly.
Ripp’s recurring riffs provided a solid base for songs like “Heavenly Charm,” a dark, serpentine piece that allowed Verlaine to channel concurrently the spirits of Raymond Chandler and the late guitarist John Cipollina. The material presented here — mostly new, aside from a few tracks (notably, the slowly enveloping “Kingdom Come”) from Verlaine’s older solo outings — was rooted in the nonchalant darkness of bygone bohemia.
There’s never been anything particularly nihilistic about Verlaine’s music, but it’s far from sunny side up. With their purposefully craggy solos and shrug-at-the-squalor lyrical turns, songs like “Shingaling” and the stark “Documentary” instead exuded the sort of unblinking realism nurtured by years of living in the margins. On this evening, he made those margins seem as inviting as can be.