For a band that released its first album this week, the Bears--the new group featuring guitarist Adrian Belew--has a surprisingly long history.
The quartet first worked under the Bears moniker in 1985. But it was 11 years ago that Belew--whose lengthy resume includes stints with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads and King Crimson--met the other three musicians (singer-guitarist Rob Fetters, bassist Bob Nyswonger, drummer Chris Arduser), then in a band called the Raisins.
"We were all playing the bars in Nashville--right before Frank Zappa came along and changed my life," Belew recalled during in a recent phone interview, just before starting the tour that includes stops tonight at the Coach House and May 24 at the Palace.
"Ever since, we've seen each other all the time. They've come to all the concerts I've been involved in, and vice-versa: I would always drop in on the Raisins, play with them and hang out with them. So we've known each other a long time."
The four entertained the idea of a permanent collaboration, but Belew--widely considered a technically masterful, enormously inventive guitarist--was in great demand.
And when folks like Zappa and Bowie invited him to play on their albums and tours, Belew thought it prudent to accept. In addition, in the early '80s the super-sideman was a full member of the reincarnated King Crimson. He was also carving out a solo career, releasing the LPs "Lone Rhino" and "Twang Bar King."
Meanwhile, the Raisins were also plugging away, playing constantly and releasing a self-titled album in 1983. By 1985, King Crimson had disbanded and the Bears had officially formed, even though Belew was still contributing to such projects as Laurie Anderson's "Home of the Brave" and Paul Simon's "Graceland."
Why would someone of Belew's stature want to work in a new band and return to the club circuit? Is this downward mobility just a dilettantish gesture, another fleeting experience to tack on to the resume?
"No, (the Bears) is a long-term thing," Belew, 37, insisted. "We want it to continue on and on. I feel very strongly about the songwriting in this band, in particular.
"That was one of the reasons, apart from the friendships, that I wanted to be in this band. Because with all four of us writing, there's just an awful lot of stuff we can do, so we'll be together for a long time.
"It also gives me the opportunity to delineate between the 'art' of my music--the solo album, personal things--and the band structure like this, where you tour and collaborate and so on."
Sure enough, the band material bears no resemblance to Belew's most recent solo effort, "Desire Caught by the Tail," an instrumental, highly experimental chunk of avant-rock.
"The Bears" is a collection of far more conventionally designed songs --where everything from the Beatles to King Crimson would turn up in a game of Spot-the-Influence. This spunky record incorporates some wonderfully bizarre touches, but some of it's downright catchy.
"When we get together, the songwriting has the natural tendency toward pop music, and we're careful to keep it in that vein," observed Belew, who recently moved to Lake Geneva, Wis., from his longtime base in Illinois. "This band could, I think, spread out and be more adventurous, but that's maybe in the future. We really like the idea of creating a 'Bears sound' that's a little familiar, yet a little different."
Bears music already boasts two sonic signatures: inspired guitar exchanges between Belew and Fetters, and the duo's similarly intriguing vocal interplay.
"The two-man singing is a trademark we all agreed on," Belew said. "We said, 'Let's don't have a lead singer per se --let's sing all the time together, like Lennon and McCartney did.' "
Clearly, the Bears' LP will never be mistaken for a package of fluffy, disposable pop. But Belew hopes it will find a sizable audience.
"I think we made the right record," he said. "I feel strongly that the Bears will make their own way."