Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Arthur Lee, part one

One of the reasons we decided to start this blog was to have an outlet to write about our impressions of music, movies, and "culcha" in general, as well as to talk about the activities of our label. I spent a couple decades as a zine writer, for Puncture and other magazines, but called it quits after that magazine finally folded in 2001. At the time, I thought I had spent far too much time in my life writing record reviews when I should have been writing songs. No regrets on that decision---What Is Truth was the result---but sometimes I miss writing down my opinions instead of just spouting them in passing.

Anyway, we'll be musing on the arts from time to time here on the Ear Candle blog. For starters, here is a reposting of my impression of Arthur Lee's incredible show at the Great American Music Hall in 2004. I will be following up with some words about Arthur's strange, touching and sometimes excruciating performance at the Cafe Du Nord the following year. (One of his last live shows ever.) But for now, let's remember Mr. Lee at the peak of his twilight glory once more:

Last night's Arthur Lee gig at the Great American Music Hall was inspirational. Good to see the old eccentric genius in such fine form. This time out the regular present-day lineup of Love (formerly Baby Lemonade) was augmented by two male trumpet players (one of whom doubled on flute for "She Comes In Colors") and an all-female string quartet: different musicians than the Swedish mini-orchestra on the DVD from two years ago, probably some L.A. people they hired. After a blasting rendition of "Your Mind And We Belong Together", they gave the people what they wanted and played Forever Changes from start to finish. It was something else, seeing these songs come alive.

Lee himself was in fine spirits, flashing wry grins, flailing maracas and tambourines, occasionally picking at a third guitar, and dancing with peculiar grace like a man half his age. He's got himself a cracking little ensemble of supporting players who know his music inside out (and help him with the occasional missed lyric...hey, some of these songs are nearly 40 years old; cut the man a little slack!).

There was one moment where it looked like it was all going to go to hell in a handbasket, when a wag from the audience (a guy I vaguely know from Hotel Utah open mikes past who plays old-timey music with a group called the Motherfolkers) started teasing Lee about hiding behind his shades and singing some of the lyrics (particularly the Bryan McLean-written "Old Man") from a music stand. After the first remark ("make some eye contact", I think), there was a flash of the man's notorious temper and he angrily flung his Calistoga bottle (the soft plastic kind, luckily) at him. In a split-second I could see Lee collecting himself and remembering what he was there for, how much trouble he'd had in the past and how now, older and wiser, he was determined to rise above reacting to what were really good-natured jibes as though they were insults, and yet, retain his command of the stage. He broke into a wide smile and muttered "sorry about that, man", in the most disarmingly sweet way imaginable. The Motherfolker persisted, taunting Lee about the lyric sheet that had just been brought out for "Old Man", when suddenly Lee shouted, "Who said that??" and leaped into the audience, still holding the mike. I fully expected an ugly scuffle to ensue, and so did many of the others around, immediately clearing a wide berth around him. (Arthur Lee is not a small man, and definitely looks like someone who could do some damage if he chose to go that way.) I couldn't quite catch what was being said, but Lee said something like, "I'll show you", and signalled the band to start the song. Lee brought up his microphone, put his arm around the Motherfolker, and started singing McLean's lyrics flawlessly, putting himself fully into the slightly-mawkish-but-oh-so-moving song about receiving guidance from a wise old man, then weaving through the crowd, focusing on various graying middle-aged record-collector-fanatic guys in the audience (and there were a lot), seemingly dedicating the song to all the "old men" who'd come out to support one of their old favorite obscure cult heroes. It was alternately sweet and side-splittingly hilarious, and from that moment on the whole crowd was in the palm of Arthur Lee's hand. Bloody brilliant, it was.

The rest of the show was equally great; a wide selection of songs from various stages of Lee's career followed the Forever Changes reading, from essential oldies like "7 And 7 Is", "My Little Red Book", and a wrenching "Signed D.C.", to an OK new song, to some numbers from the Four Sail album including a great one called "Singing Cowboy", that ended as a wild sing-along rave-up, with the string players sawing away ferociously. (Sadly, Steve Abbate says the original version doesn't have that feature...it was a spontaneous bit of brilliance that night. Still, I will have to give Four Sail another chance. When I first heard it, it was just too late-60s proggy hard rock for my ears. But now that my wife and I have become full-on Arthur Lee fanatics, it's overdue for a reassessment.) After a long generous encore including gems like "My Flash On You", "A Message To Pretty" and "She Comes In Colours" as well as the above-mentioned numbers and much more, Lee's final remarks went something like "If you take one last thing with you from me tonight, I want it to be...now what's that all about? Laughing when I'm trying to say something here...come on. Now what I was saying was, if you take one thing with you tonight, I want it to be this: Love each other. Good night." Could have been trite as hell in another context, but from someone who's had the ups and downs this guy has, it was pretty damn deep and meaningful. Thanks Arthur.

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