Monday, December 4, 2017

Gary Lucas' Astonishing Concert

I saw an astonishing gig last night, a solo concert by Gary Lucas, the guitarist from Captain Beefheart's band, who I'd always enjoyed on those records from half a century ago.

Live, solo, and decades later, he was a whole other thing. He whipped through Fellini film music by Nino Rota, Chinese pop tunes from the 30s, Leoš Janáček studies (I'd have killed for some Villa Lobos), and various covers and originals, all performed in a funky, bluesy, apparently sloppy swamp-gas style with such intense relish that the effect was downright devotional.

I say "apparently sloppy" because while at first it sounded like random notes were popping out of the gutbucket mayhem, it wasn't until passages repeated three or four times that I realized, with wonderment, that the same "random" notes were appearing each time, via inhuman control. With this earth-shaking realization, I understood the magnitude of what was happening, and started listening far more closely.

I finally thought to record a couple minutes of the very last tune (by no means the best). I've played with thousands of guitarists, and dozens of highly inventive ones. I've heard, ad infinitum, every one of the usual permutations guitarists choose to voice chords. And he is doing things here that I can't begin to analyze. Not noisy, anarchic things (which easily defy analysis), but tuneful, formalized things which do not normally lend themselves to wholesale reinvention. A lot of the magic is in his myriad weirdo tunings, but it's unimaginable that he could be so utterly fluent within each different one.

The almost goofy thing about Lucas' performance was how extraordinarily easy it would've been to assume he's just a manically funky strummer with fast hands. I'm sure that's how the vast majority of the audience heard it. But as with an iceberg's water, 95% of the talent is hidden well out of sight, cagily slipped beneath the funky clamor, and easy for even a seasoned musician to miss. Each time my attention drifted - because my ears felt assured they were locked onto something familiar - I'd be jarred from my reverie by some subliminal thunderstroke making me exclaim, out loud, "What the HELL was that?!?"

Gushing subtle miracles and slyly understated wonderment, Gary Lucas is a god of nano-aesthetics.

Shortly after I erased myself from the music business to concentrate on Chowhound, Lucas slipped into a band I'd only recently been playing with. I really wish I had hung around a while longer....

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