Joe Frank – Consummate Storyteller

Yesterday afternoon I had the privilege of seeing one of Joe Frank’s rare live performances. The event, which was sponsored by KCRW and benefited the station, took place at The Village in West LA, a renowned recording studio that in and of itself was a highlight of the show – but more on that later.

Joe Frank

Photo credit: Jeremiah Garcia

For over 26 years Joe Frank has graced the radio waves with his unique, esoteric presence. When he worked at KCRW between 1986 and 2002, he created four distinctive series, Work in Progress, In The Dark, Somewhere Out There, and The Other Side.

I used to listen to those shows whenever I could because they always captivated me with their very particular blend of storytelling and atmospheric music. There was nothing like them anywhere else on the radio then and, as far as I know, that’s still true today.

On the radio, Frank’s shows were self-contained episodes that began without introduction. He would just start speaking and you were immediately transported on an auditory adventure, sometimes bizarre and dark, often very funny, and always hard to turn off.

The performance Saturday afternoon began with a brief introduction by Jeff Greenburg, who runs The Village. After telling us a little about the recording studio, he introduced Joe Frank. It was obvious from his comments that he is as big a fan as the rest of the audience.

Once on stage and seated behind a simple table with note stand and microphone, Frank began the performance like his radio shows – by just beginning a story without any opening remarks. What immediately struck me was how familiar the sounds of Frank’s sonic theater were to me. The smooth, measured voice, backed by hypnotic music carrying the story forward – it was all there, but this time I was actually in the same room as Frank, not just listening to the disembodied voice on my radio.

Joe Frank

Photo credit: Jeremiah Garcia

Frank’s idiosyncratic approach to performance is hard to categorize, but whatever you want to call it, it’s completely mesmerizing. I had no idea where his stories were going, but that just didn’t matter. I willingly went along for the ride as he explored themes of aging, loss and death, among others.

I always loved the atmospheric music Joe Frank used in his radio broadcasts and this live performance carried on that tradition to great effect. Expertly accompanied by James Harrah on electric guitar, who played along with a pre-recorded soundtrack, Frank masterfully used music to establish a mood, highlight particular parts of his stories, and help increase the audience’s receptivity to the unexpected.

Another special element of the show was the venue. The Village is housed in a brick building constructed by the Freemasons in 1922 as a Masonic Temple. It was then used by The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 60s as the U.S. center for Transcendental Meditation.

In 1968, musician and entrepreneur Geordie Hormel (1928-2006) transformed the building into one of the premier recording facilities in the world. 

The Village is the place where numerous landmark sessions were recorded by artists such as Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Heartbreakers, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Smashing Pumpkins, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Melissa Ethridge, Oasis, Usher, Nine Inch Nails, Nelly, Alanis Morissette and many others. Joe Frank is now part of the studio’s legendary roster of artists and I feel so fortunate to have been there to experience first hand this unique talent and talk performance pioneer. 

If you’d like to experience a Joe Frank performance, watch the following YouTube video. Joe Frank: Just an Ordinary Man, a selection from Joe Frank live at the Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago, March 13, 2010, featuring James Harrah on guitar. Film by D.P. Carlson from Film Foetus.