Monday, 11 July 2011


Lee 'Scratch' Perry
May 20th, Brighton Dome, part of the Brighton Festival

The Brighton Festival programme boldly described Perry as “reggae’s answer to Joe Meek, Phil Spector and Brian Jones, rolled into one.” And if that sounds like hyperbole, I had an old flatmate who would defiantly insist that Perry “invented modern music, simple as that!”

If anything, the first description sells Perry short. You’d have to add both Zappa and Beefheart to the composite, then a touch of Mark E Smith and a sprinkling of Miles Davis.And while the second is perhaps a little excessive, and would inevitably lead me to counter that in fact Faust had invented modern music, I take the point.

By the late Sixties music had stopped being about the band as a unit, with the studio as a sort of glorified tape recorder whose duty was to capture their live sound as closely as it could. Instead the studio became the focus, and the producer the central figure. The recording, once a snapshot, had now been smashed into a jigsaw which could be reassembled into any order, or even mashed up with a quite different jigsaw. Years after visual art, sound now had it’s scalpel blade.

Fools will tell you ’Sergeant Pepper’ established all this, an album which was at most transitional. ’Pepper’ was still about songs, written by members of a band, to which studio ‘trickery’ was later added by the producer. By this point the band had learnt to anticipate, and even to some extent second-guess the ‘trickery’, but that’s all. Lee Perry, conversely, was composing tracks, music assembled within and by the studio.

He accomplished this by building his own studio, the legendary Black Ark, which gave him the necessary creative control. (If not the cutting-edge equipment. It’s endearingly ironic that all this innovation was accomplished in the cultural hotspot but technological backwater of Jamaica!)

But how does this studio-created music work when stuffed back into the live context? Earlier, I compared Perry to Beefheart. But when I saw the Magic Band, even without the Captain aboard, I felt I was getting the essence of what that band were about. The previous time I saw Perry (at a festival sometime in the Nineties), I wasn’t sure at all.

On record everything is in such a state of overload, with more elements thrown at you than you can possibly count. God only knows how genuine Perry’s crazy-man persona is, but listening to such music is like peering into the buzzing head of a crazy person – everything where you wouldn’t expect it to be, yet all part of some contrary order.

For reasons I’m not entirely sure I can explain, it all worked so much better this time. Perry being a headliner, not part of a festival line-up, may have helped. It was also a shrewd move to put Max Romeo on first. Though delivering a splendid set in it’s own right, and sharing the same backing band, Romeo served up his hits and did all the stuff you expect reggae to do. It was like Romeo set the baseline, for Perry to then bend and mould.

For ‘Soul Fire’, he devised a bizarre dance where you had to pretend your hand was a fluttering butterfly. It was precisely the sort of compulsive, oddball ritual you’d see a crazy person perform in the street, and give them something of a berth. As a sign of his deranged genius, Perry had the whole audience doing it!

At first, I thought he was stretching the track out a little, then – as it stretched out further and further – it broke through into something else. You lost all sense that the track had ever started or would ever finish, and just got completely lost in the moment - a total trance-out exercise.

Max Romeo performing ’I Chase The Devil’, the track famously sampled by The Prodigy...

A sadly too-brief snippet of Lee Perry’s arrival...

...and him performing ’Soul Fire’ in Dublin last year. (Warning! Video contains filming-while-dancing footage, but that does help capture that deranged endlessness...)

John Cale
May 23rd, Brighton Dome, part of the Brighton Festival

Like Lee Perry, the last time I’d seen John Cale I’d hoped to see a master of music but came away a little underwhelmed. (December 2003, it was, in this very same venue.) Being an old-time LP sort of person, I have sometimes heard music played at the wrong speed, but at times that night seemed like a gig playing at the wrong speed. I duly noted “it seemed totally unclear why some things worked and others didn’t.” (A note made in Ye Olde Print Days of Lucid Frenzy, hence the lack of a link to it!)

Yet of course, as these comments about the ‘Paris 1919’ album should convey, I hold a huge admiration for John Cale and was consequently quite willing to give his live self another go.

Van Morrison fans talk about his notorious temperament, which can make the difference between a good and a bad gig a simple whim of his mood. I wonder if something similar might be true for Cale. (Who may well have previously performed with Lou Reed as the only person alive who made him seem cheery by comparison.) He quite possibly can’t be bothered to act bothered when he isn’t bothered.

He was scarcely an ebullient raconteur this time around but (saints be praised) he even spoke to “Brighton” a few times. When someone yelled the observation that he was “a friggin’ genius” he deadpanned back “now, now, settle down!” For Cale, that counts as a happy pills moment.

However, it’s also notable that this set was a lot better sequenced. (Ostensibly chosen “in direct response to themes of this year’s Brighton Festival”, exile and all that. Though you may not have guessed that without being told.) The previous set could have been planned by i-Pod shuffle. This time it worked up gradually from mournful ballads to rock-out numbers, Cale migrating from keyboards to acoustic to electric guitar.

Cale’s output is so eclectic that even this curve couldn’t capture the span of it. There was no droning violas, no symphony orchestras and (notably) no Velvet Underground songs. But it’s like visiting the neigbourhoods of a town, with the stopovers you get a chance to soak up some of the streets before being whisked off to the next place. (It may be significant that on record Cale often devoted whole albums to styles.)

Given what I’ve already said about ’Paris 1919’, it will be no surprise to say I enjoy his existential ballads, ornate yet bleak at heart. Cale’s quick mind would seem to bore easily, and these were often reworked and rearranged. It’s always good to hear something new and unexpected, but it must be said these changes didn’t always work to their benefit. The reflective ’Half Past France’, for example, was worked up into something poppier and bouncier, an overbearing guitar line getting in the way of the strings. I sound like one of those music conservatives who likes the set-list released in advance, but it must be said that the standout moments were the ones which were done like the record.

Lending themselves less to rearrangement, the rockier tracks were perhaps more consistent. Things wrapped up with an extended workout around ’Helen Of Troy’, a number I’ve always thought to be underrated. But the highlight may have been the main set’s closer, a truly nightmarish version of the much more recent ’Letter From Abroad.’ With its reliance on samples and studio effects, it’s not an obvious live show stopper, but certainly did the business here. And only Cale would write what’s ostensibly a protest song, then drop in the refrain “I don’t really care but I though I’d ask, in case it mattered to you!” Nearly in his Seventies, there would seem life in the old boy yet...

Performing ’Letter From Abroad’ in Melbourne late last year...

Coming Soon! ‘fraid so, more Brighton Festival stuff. (After which we will be moving swiftly on...)

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