Adrian Belew has never been a typical guitar hero. Where other six-string superstars owe their reputations to slash-and-burn virtuosity, Belew built his on sound alone -- a collection of electronically altered shrieks and moans that fell somewhere between Hendrixian splendor and feeding time at the zoo.
Needless to say, he was instantly adored by rock's intelligentsia. First Frank Zappa snatched him from the club circuit, then David Bowie snapped him up. His slippery, screaming leads lent drama to Talking Heads' "Remain in Light," while his sly, snaky rhythm work helped the Tom Tom Club crack the Top 40 (with "Genius of Love"). Add in a lengthy stint with King Crimson, plus session work with Laurie Anderson and Paul Simon, and his resume seems the stuff of legends.
But as much as others appreciated Belew's playing, it took years before he himself could appreciate his strengths.
"It took me a while to assimilate it all," he says, speaking over the phone from a tour stop in Northampton, Mass. "In the earlier part of my career, I was bouncing around through so many different things. If you get to play with Talking Heads or David Bowie or Frank Zappa or King Crimson, it's educational and enjoyable -- a very life changing process.
TTC "But I think I was confused by it somewhat. When I first picked up the guitar, it was not so much to be a guitar hero but to be a good songwriter."
Unfortunately, songwriting skills are not quite what most bands look for in a lead guitarist -- a situation that left Belew feeling somewhat stunted as an artist. That's one of the reasons he's so happy to be out on his own these days, with a new album, "Inner Revolution," and a tour of his own (he plays Max's on Broadway this evening).
"I think of myself as a kind of a late bloomer," he laughs. "Even though I now have a body of work behind me, I only feel that in the last few years have I really started to accomplish what I want to do."
Nowhere is Belew's shift from guitar-slinger to songwriter more obvious than on "Inner Revolution." Even though the playing on these songs is as inventive as anything he's done, Belew's focus here isn't on instrumental flash but melodic allure. As such, the best songs -- especially "Big Blue Sun" and "The War in the Gulf Between Us" -- shine with a distinctly Beatlesque sheen.
That's no accident, either. "Well, you know, I often say that I try to get something from the spirit of [the Beatles'] music," Belew says.
"But in fact, it became so ingrained in me at a young age that a lot of it is production. When I was listening to those records when I was younger, what I liked to do was try and figure out every little thing that everyone was doing, including the saxophone sections and the string quartets. So I think I got a huge dose of education, George Martin-style.
"People do say this is a Beatlesque album, and that to me is flattering. They are my musical heritage. . . . For my money, there aren't many people who make records sounding any better than that."
When: Tonight, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Max's on Broadway, 735 S. Broadway.
Call: (410) 675-6297 for information, (800) 551-7328 for tickets.